Yes, Mahony is right. He is also so very, very wrong.

Regular readers know that, outside of expressing shame, horror, disgust, sorrow and a sense of repentance for the scandals that have been roiling the church since 2002, I don’t discuss the subject much. It is a difficult subject, and sometimes I am a coward, and avoid what is too hard. With the exception of Bishop Finn and his epic fail, I don’t think I’ve written about any of the individual bishops or cardinals enmeshed in this awful heartstrain.

But it’s hard not to write about Cardinal Roger Mahony and his response to Archibishop Jose Gomez’s unprecedented disciplining of him, which was reported last night.

Gomez released this letter (pdf), in which, regarding the recently released files and letters pertaining to a diocesan cover-up of priestly abuse, he writes:

I find these files to be brutal and painful reading. The behavior described in these files is terribly sad and evil. There is no excuse, no explaining away what happened to these children. The priests involved had the duty to be their spiritual fathers and they failed. [. . .] My predecessor, retired Cardinal Roger Mahony, has expressed his sorrow for his failure to fully protect young people entrusted to his care. Effective immediately, I have informed Cardinal Mahony that he will no longer have any administrative or public duties.

This is pretty unprecedented, but also fairly toothless. Mahony is already retired, so his administrative duties to the diocese are almost nil, and his public duties were at this point largely ceremonial. Some people were too fast to interpret Gomez to mean that Mahony would no longer engage in public ministry, which Grant Gallicho at dotcommonweal was prompt in correcting. As Rocco Palmo, Deacon Greg, Lisa Hendey and Joanne McPortland more than amply covered it yesterday’s story, I figured once again, I didn’t need to write about it.

But today, Mahony has released on his personal blog (at the behest of his friends, apparently) a letter he sent to Gomez.

I wish he hadn’t. I understand why Mahony might write it; when you’ve been loved and celebrated it has to sting beyond bearing, to be publicly chastised in such a way. But like Joanne, I want to say, Cardinal, please stop.”

For one thing, if Mahony had remained silent, he would have seen his headlines disappear quickly; they usually do, anyway, because the mainstream press tends to like him, but today Gomez’ move was already being overshadowed, by the death of Ed Koch, the apparent implosion of two of the president’s nominees and the administration’s move on the HHS Mandate. Had Mahony simply taken his licks like a man and shut up, his own story would have quickly been buried under the shifting sands of busy news day.

For another thing, Mahony’s letter is so disturbing — even though I will defend him on one point — that I have to respond. There is a “poor me, you don’t know what I’ve suffered” note to the whole thing that is just repellent. Truthfully, I also found his disclosure the other day, that he keeps the names of abuse victims “on 3×5 cards” so he can pray for them in his little chapel — to be weirdly off-putting and dainty. It smacked of “women in binders” but perhaps because the press likes him, no one said as much.

Here is what Mahony wrote:

Nothing in my own background or education equipped me to deal with this grave problem. In two years [1962—1964] spent in graduate school earning a Master’s Degree in Social Work, no textbook and no lecture ever referred to the sexual abuse of children. While there was some information dealing with child neglect, sexual abuse was never discussed…All the advice was to remove priests from active ministry if there was reasonable suspicion that abuse had occurred, and then refer them to one of the several residential treatment centers across the country for evaluation and recommendation.

I thought he had a degree in social work, but let’s stipulate that even if nothing in one’s educational background equipped one to deal with the sexual abuse of minors, a religious (or even secular) understanding of justice and own’s own common sense should shout into one’s conscience the right thing to do.

Still, Mahony is telling the truth. As I noted in this episode of In the Arena, at the time most of these abuses were taking place, there weren’t even child-specific laws on the books to deal with the abuse of children. The mentality that these were criminal acts simply wasn’t there, and so — as with incest in the family — silence ruled the day. Back in the late 1970′s and throughout the 1980′s recommendations from mental-health professionals was essentially, “give them therapy, and they’ll be good to go” and our church relied on that worldly wisdom and treated the sex abuse problem with “treatment and transfer” and of course, cover-up.

The problem, in a nutshell, is in that last sentence. The church took the advice of the world; she relied on the “experts” of the world to guide her in these issues instead of relying on everything she knew and understood about sin, and justice and “the least of these.”

The church should have preceded the world in recognizing and addressing such depravity, not followed along with the broom and shovel.

I would like to think this was a subconscious mistake, but the truth is this: the worldly way gave the bishops some cover and “room to move.” The Way of Heaven would have insisted on admission of guilt, accountability, restitution, reparation and penance, penance, penance–which we will not escape in any case.

So Mahony, in his letter, is blaming the world and its experts and the church who listened to the experts for his failings. To a point, that’s an argument he can make. But then, Mahony moves to spite and sniveling:

When you were formally received as our Archbishop on May 26, 2010, you began to become aware of all that had been done here over the years for the protection of children and youth. You became our official Archbishop on March 1, 2011 and you were personally involved with the Compliance Audit of 2012—again, in which we were deemed to be in full compliance.

Not once over these past years did you ever raise any questions about our policies, practices, or procedures in dealing with the problem of clergy sexual misconduct involving minors.

I have stated time and time again that I made mistakes, especially in the mid-1980s. I apologized for those mistakes, and committed myself to make certain that the Archdiocese was safe for everyone.

The spite comes, of course, with the sly suggestion that Gomez knew the whole of everything since 2010 and is therefore enacting a Claude Rainsian “I’m shocked, shocked…” in his discipline of Mahony, but hey it’s possible that Gomez did not know the extent of Mahony’s efforts to hide these abuses until he really perused the documents.

Or, perhaps Gomez was simply waiting to make his move — a move which quite possibly might not have been undertaken without some measure of Roman approval — at a time when the whole of the story was finally being made plain to the public.

The sniveling comes with the rest of it. “Mistakes were made” didn’t cut it for Nixon. It doesn’t cut it for most of us. As Joanne writes:

Stop inciting God’s people to take sides. This cannot be Team Gomez vs Team Mahony. This has to be, can only be, Team Jesus Christ.

Stop talking about mistakes. We all make mistakes, because we’re human, and even our best intentions are subject to the realities of a fallen world. But there is a clear difference between mistakes and sin, a difference that was covered in your seminary textbooks, in the Baltimore Catechism, in even the most flawed catechetical texts of the 1970s and 1980s . . .Stop whining. It’s indecent. It will not earn you sympathy, because there is no room to feel sorry for a person who feels so sorry for himself. Believe me. I know.

Stop, for God’s sake and the sake of the children and young people whose lives were destroyed by representatives of Christ and of his Church, trying to tell us you had no idea abuse could be so harmful, or that abusers couldn’t just give it up and move on. The documents signed off by you, the marginal notes in your handwriting, prove you a liar—and that’s if you truly had, initially, such a paucity of imagination and compassion that you did not intuit the damage rape, kidnapping, drugging, and death threats could do to a child—or to the soul of a predator.

In that “In the Arena” episode, I talk about how what happened in the church, the abuse, the cover-ups, the neglectful mentality, was like a macrocosm of sexual abuse within the family, where authority, shame and very confused love all work to keep things hidden. Once upon a time, a kid being touched improperly or more seriously abused was almost just “a thing that happens in life.” The world didn’t know what to do with it.

Thank God for enlightenment, though. Mahony tells the truth when he says the world and its experts supported some of his responses. But Heaven never could have. And he should have known that.

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