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Cardinals Look Out for No. 1 in Scandal

May 3, 2002 | Los Angeles Times

Entirely by coincidence, I happened to be in Rome while American bishops and cardinals were there for a powwow with the pope. Once or twice, I was tempted to interrupt the vacation with my wife and run over to the Vatican to see if I could corner a cardinal or two.

Thankfully, logic prevailed.

It was preordained that church leaders would say very little in Rome, and do even less. After the meetings, America's vicars of morality left as they had arrived: secure, intact, not one of them held accountable for a scandal of their own making. This avoidance of responsibility is its own little miracle, when you think about the likes of Cardinals Roger Mahony and Bernard Law of Los Angeles and Boston. Law, in particular, would have been tossed out on the street months ago if he were in any other business. But in the church, he's just one or two scandals away from being promoted to Rome.

Dozens of priests nationally--30 in California alone--have been driven out of the church since January. One, an alleged rapist on the run from Boston, left his San Diego apartment in handcuffs Thursday morning. He's the fellow who was dished off to a San Bernardino parish after dozens of abuse allegations, and his attendance at a gathering of the North American Man/Boy Love Assn.

Any idea how many bishops and cardinals have lost their jobs since January?


Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell, of West Palm Beach, Fla., admitted fondling a seminary student and had the humility to walk away.

Day after day, bells toll in Rome as evidence mounts that bishops and cardinals have harbored, reassigned and otherwise protected abusive priests, in the process putting more potential victims within reach.

But not one such leader has been indicted, dismissed or demoted, or had the decency to step down, as O'Connell did. You get the feeling the confab in Rome was nothing more than a company picnic.

"I can't get anybody to understand that the corruption comes from the top down and not from the bottom up," says Richard Sipe, a former priest living in La Jolla.

"I'm hoping the cases in Boston and Los Angeles will advance that idea. The church hierarchy says they have to get better screening of new priests, and that's not going to make one bit of difference. It's not a case of little perverts sneaking into the church. It's a case of men flourishing in a system that is accountable to no one and considers itself above the law."

This brings up another crime in the church, one that hasn't gotten much attention. When rogue police officers are found out, there's a rush to condemn the code of silence that protects corruption and abuse. We all want to know why just one good cop didn't have the courage to blow the whistle.

The priesthood is a small fraternity, too, with relatively few secrets. So why haven't good priests had the courage to give up the predators among them?

Sipe says he tried. Two times as a priest and three times since he's left the church and worked as a therapist, he's reported abuse or suspected abuse to church officials.

"I've been turned away every time," he says. "Just like the police force, there isn't just one reason it's kept quiet. The clergy is a culture, and rules of truth and honesty that would seem appropriate on the outside don't mean a thing on the inside."

Sipe told of one case of rape, in which the victim later asked a priest who had witnessed the act why he didn't do anything. "And the response was, 'Father is only human,'" Sipe says.

"There's a sense of entitlement in the priesthood, and an odd contradiction. Priests consider themselves held to a higher standard--the standard of Jesus Christ and the law of God. At the same time they don't feel bound by the same rules that apply to others. That is the culture, and once you understand it, a lot of things come into focus."

I think things have been coming into focus for a while. I started in on this subject last summer, writing about a priest in Dana Point who volunteered gads of information about his abuse of a teenager and his relationships with several women. I've never understood why he gave himself up like that; maybe it's because he knew no one else would.

That pastor was run out of his parish after the publicity. Last weekend, the same church lost another priest. This one had been sent there in 1996, three years after admitting "inappropriate behavior" with men, and two years after the parents of two sons accused the priest of molesting the boys.

And on and on and on.

If you grew up in a church, as I did, there's something comforting about walking into St. Peter's in the Vatican, no matter what route you've followed to get there. The echoes of footfalls seem to bounce off the rafters of heaven, and you are taken back to a time in your youth when you believed so much and knew so little.

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