Editor’s Journal: A test of perspective

Two more weeks of the priest abuse scandal means even more pressure to explain inside baseball

Two weeks ago we examined the previous six weeks of my newspaper’s coverage of the priest abuse scandal.

And then the shit really hit the fan.

Editor's Journal: A test of perspective

Editor's Journal: A test of perspective

The pope called the church’s cardinals to Rome. The cardinals spent two days talking (the adjective “extraordinary” was used more within these two days by journalists than at any other time in recorded human history) and essentially punted to the church’s bishops, who control 195 separate, independent dioceses. The bishops will meet in June. Until then you’ll be reading lotsa “interpretive” pieces, but not much action.

What follows is an analysis of our coverage during the past two weeks. As in the case of the April 15 posting, I’m not trying to show perfection–far from it–but rather the instantaneous choices that get made when a big whopping story drags you around like you were a big whopping fish.

In many of these stories, the most important–and hardest–choice was perspective. On the face of it, many of these developments had the nuanced feel of inside baseball. Only with careful attention to the events that had gone before, and that might grow out of new ones, could we give anybody but the most attentive Catholic incentive to read this stuff. In editing many of these stories I found myself screaming inside (not out of anger but out of panic): What does this mean? What did it stem from? Where might it lead? How does it contradict the past?

The April 15 Editor’s Journal posting ended with the April 13 story in which reporters Beth Shuster and Richard Winton developed enough specifics from police to force the Cardinal of Los Angeles, Roger Mahony, to admit the specific number of priests he had dismissed in February and March for past sexual misconduct. That ended a month and a half of silence by the cardinal–at least partially.

Then:

April 14: Larry Stammer weighed in with a news analysis that grew from my frustration with everybody blaming the sexual abuse scandal on one issue, when it was obviously far more complicated.

The sexual-abuse scandal rocking the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. has prompted calls for reforms that often blame the crisis on a single issue: Celibacy. Or homosexuality. Or secrecy. Or imperious bishops.

But what has made this scandal more intense and prolonged than its predecessors is the complex way each of these issues interlock.

The complexity explains why the scandal has outraged and energized such a wide range of church constituencies: Liberal Catholics believe the church can be healed by permitting married priests and the ordination of women. Ardent traditionalists who link homosexuality to sexual abuse see the scandal as a sign that the church must return to a holiness grounded in fealty to traditional teachings. Still others call for a democratization of the church so that bishops, who answer only to Pope John Paul II, will be held accountable by their dioceses.

“We’ve had so much institutional culture shock that the deeper [question] is where to go from here,” said Dennis Doyle, a church historian and professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio, founded by the Marianist teacher order.

The current scandal has struck with unprecedented breadth and fury. In the last three months scores of priests from coast to coast and three bishops around the world have resigned, been fired or asked to retire.

So volatile is the debate that rational discussion is impaired. “We are in a dangerous period. . . . Everyone inside and outside the church, wants to find simplistic solutions,” wrote Father Stephen J. Rossetti, president of the St. Luke Institute, which treats sexually abusing priests, in the upcoming issue of the Jesuit magazine America.

The church’s dilemma lies at the intersection of celibacy, homosexual and secrecy.

Larry then went through each of the three:

Celibacy
What one often hears is that if an offending priest had a healthy sexual outlet–in other words, a wife–he wouldn’t turn to minors for sexual gratification.

But to suggest a direct correlation between celibacy and the sexual abuse of minors is both facile and specious. Study after study demonstrate that pedophilia, an attraction to pre-pubescent children, and ephebophilia, an attraction to post-pubescent youths, more often involves heterosexual men who are friends or relatives of their victims.

In such cases, the abusers suffer from what psychologists call arrested psychosexual development. They are sexually immature. Often they have difficulty relating to and negotiating with adults. In other cases, they may have experienced feelings of abandonment and low self-esteem.

In other cases, heterosexual men have been known to molest boys, not necessarily because of…

April 17: Beth, Richard and Glen Bunting develop our first story on a particularly troublesome case that calls into question the Archdiocese’s judgment:

A 34-year-old West Hollywood man reported Tuesday to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department that he had been molested from 1976 to 1986 by a priest who Cardinal Roger M. Mahony said failed to comply with a church-ordered therapy program.

The man, whose name is being withheld by The Times, claimed he was abused repeatedly by Father Michael Baker, beginning when he was 9 at St. Paul of the Cross Church in La Mirada. “Father Mike did this to me, and he did it to others and needs to answer for his crimes,” the man said.

Baker, 54, is one of several former priests whose names were recently turned over by church officials to Los Angeles Police Department investigators.

Baker left the priesthood two years ago and agreed to pay a portion of a $1.3-million settlement to the family of one victim, according to sources familiar with the deal.

Mahony, who refused to discuss the specifics of Baker’s case, said in an interview the former priest is among a small group that “troubles me the most,” men who have left the archdiocese and are living without any supervision.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Baker said he could not comment on the allegations or Mahony’s characterization of him. “I have some feelings of response and clarification … but I don’t think I can really comment on them right now. I have been advised not to,” he said.

Baker began years of counseling in the mid-1980s after the archdiocese learned of alleged child abuse, according to sources knowledgeable about Baker’s treatment.

“All of our evidence showed that he was never really complying with any therapy program and therefore there was never any cooperation of any kind,” Mahony said.

“The experience of many in dealing with him was they questioned the truthfulness of what he said.”

Mahony is under increasing pressure to reveal the names of priests who have been fired over child abuse allegations.

L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley sent the cardinal a letter warning of a grand jury investigation unless law enforcement agencies receive assurances that the archdiocese is disclosing everything it knows about the abuse allegations.

That same day, Teresa Watanabe examined the loyalty of devout Catholics despite the scandal. (The full text appears on the April 22 posting.)

Even after the Roman Catholic Church’s clergy sex scandal hit home, even when her own parish priest was accused of molestation last month, Maria Lopez never doubted her faith.

How could she? Her entire life, she says, has been one long answered prayer.

Lopez, a 35-year-old electronics company supervisor in Azusa, says God has calmed her troubled marriage, miraculously provided every time her cash ran short, even sent an angel disguised as a woman to talk her out of suicide.

Her church friends, as dear to her as her own mother, have prayed with her through her illnesses, fed her family and cared for her children. On Saturday, she marched with them and 3,000 others through downtown Los Angeles in support of their faith. After Mass on Sunday, she gathered with a dozen others, clasping hands and offering fervent prayers for her church, the priests and all abuse victims.

The priests in her life have baptized her four children, blessed her home and counseled her through depression. Her own pastor, Father David Granadino of St. Frances of Rome in Azusa, is under investigation on allegations that he molested boys, but Lopez and her children say they know only his goodness.

Lopez’s life offers a glimpse into why the Catholic Church’s spiraling crisis is not likely to drive many devout Catholics away from their spiritual touchstone. Her faith, she says, is not rooted in a hierarchy of men, but in the redeeming and nourishing power of Jesus’ love. In the rhythms of weekly Mass, in the deep friendships forged, her faith is her life and her church is her family.

“Our faith is based on God and the resurrection of Jesus Christ and not on a priest,” Lopez says. “Everybody is human; everybody falls at one time or another. As Christians, we should forgive. I am not someone to judge others.”

(You may have noticed the absence of our prolific and insightful columnist Steve Lopez, whose perspective contribued mightily to the coverage of the previous six weeks. He was on vacation–in Italy. We asked him to suspend his vacation, buy a tux, come to the Rome airport and welcome Cardinal Mahony as a limo driver, but he sensibly refused.)

April 19: By now we’ve been told the pope has called the cardinals to the Vatican. Our own cardinal, for so long determined to avoid the press, is suddenly giving news conferences at a heated pace. Larry Stammer tries to put it in perspective:

On a day when an alternative newspaper pictured him on its cover with a zipper locking his lips, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony settled in for a series of media interviews Thursday to get the word out that he is committed to taking direct action against sexual abuse.

It wasn’t unusual for Mahony to grant interviews. He’s viewed as one of the most media-savvy bishops in the Roman Catholic Church and sits on a pontifical council on social communications. Pope John Paul II once called him “Hollywood” for short.

But like other bishops buffeted by a sexual-abuse scandal that has shaken the church in America, Mahony initially faltered in responding. When The Times first disclosed that Mahony had fired or retired six to 12 priests who had been accused of sexual abuse in the past, the cardinal refused to comment.

Several weeks later, he conceded that “a few” priests had been let go. But he told The Times during an April 3 interview that the newspaper’s source was so off the mark “that I’m embarrassed for him and for you.”

Then Mahony’s private e-mails were leaked to the media, revealing that he had fired eight priests, forcing him to respond specifically. That was followed by a series of revelations involving priests in his own archdiocese and several missteps with law enforcement over the extent to which the church had cooperated in disclosing the names of accused priests.

And so on Thursday, in an attempt to address the issue on his own terms, Mahony invited nine television stations and two all-news radio stations to the new Cathedral Conference Center. Reporters lined up for 10 minutes apiece to hear the cardinal unveil what he described as a proactive plan to cut priestly abuse.

…Mahony’s decision to go to the media has been a defining characteristic of his priesthood, whether marching with the late farm labor organizer Cesar Chavez or dealing with child abuse. In the series of private e-mails he wrote and received that were leaked to the media, Mahony again showed himself to be keenly aware of public perceptions.

His approach sharply contrasted with that of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who not only avoided public appearances in his archdiocese, but secretly flew to Rome to determine whether he still had a job. He later said the Vatican asked him to remain.

April 20:The bishop of neighboring Orange County had been more candid than Mahony, and offered some interesting points in an interview with Orange County Edition religion writer William Lobdell as the Vatican meeting approached:

Fresh from a two-day meeting with 20 Roman Catholic leaders in Los Angeles, Tod D. Brown, bishop of Orange, said Friday it’s clear that bishops and priests will have to yield some authority to church members as a result of the church’s unfolding sex scandal.

“I think the Catholic Church in our country has been too clerical,” said Brown, a member of the Vatican’s Curia, an elite group of cardinals and bishops whose members perform duties in the pope’s name and with his authority.

“We need to take seriously” the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, a modernizing effort of the 1960s, and get the laity involved at all levels–”as much as we can do that theologically,” he added.

Placing lay Catholics in roles of influence can produce watchdogs within the church and also bring in different perspectives, loosening the powerful grip that each bishop has on his diocese. Each of the church’s 195 U.S. dioceses operates independently, with its bishop reporting to the pope.

Some prelates already have proposed such reforms. On Thursday, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony announced an expanded role of laity in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, including using victims of molestation to review sexual abuse allegations.

Brown’s comments came after a conference of California and Nevada prelates who were preparing for the highly anticipated national bishops’ conference in June. It will be the first time the bishops have gathered since news media revelations in Boston early this year unveiled case after case in which church officials had allowed priests accused of molestation to remain on the job.

April 22: Larry and Beth develop a scoop about the April 23 sex abuse talks in Rome:

ROME — Several senior American cardinals will urge the Vatican today to ask Cardinal Bernard Law to resign as archbishop of Boston in the face of an escalating sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church.

Two American clerics–a bishop and a cardinal–said that America’s Catholic bishops are all but unanimous in believing that Law must leave Boston for the good of the church.

The cardinal, who asked to remain anonymous, said Sunday that he had been “commissioned” by other senior prelates to take their case against Law directly to Pope John Paul II’s inner circle. He said that he, as well as others, would do so today during private meetings at the Vatican. Today’s meetings come a day before two days of talks between America’s cardinals and Vatican leaders on the abuse scandal.

“If the Holy See wants to send a strong signal of quality and standards of leadership,” the cardinal told The Times, Law “will have to be replaced. This cannot be a phaseout.” The cardinal said he did not want to undermine his efforts by publicly disclosing his name before speaking to the Vatican.

The bishop, also speaking on a confidential basis, told The Times, “Many bishops are of the mind that the healing process really can’t begin until there’s a change of leadership in Boston.”

The rare move against a fellow cardinal underscored Law’s increasingly precarious position in the wake of his handling of the scandal in his archdiocese, and the growing determination by the U.S. hierarchy to call for dramatic steps to extricate the American church from one of its worst crises in modern times.

A week ago Law flew to Rome to confer privately with the pope and other Vatican officials about his future. He returned to Boston and announced that he would continue as archbishop as long, he said, as God would permit him to serve. On Sunday, Law received a standing ovation when he told churchgoers at Holy Cross Cathedral that he wished that he could “undo the harm” caused by his handling of cases involving the sexual abuse of minors by priests.

On the same day that story is written, a nasty scene plays out when anti-abuse crusaders picket a church where the Times has reported the priest is under investigation for molesting boys:

Carrying picket signs that read “House of Rape” and “Stop Crucifying the Children,” a group of protesters marched outside a Roman Catholic church in Azusa on Sunday, prompting an emotional response from parishioners who yelled obscenities and blocked outsiders from entering the church.

“Go home,” shouted one parishioner at St. Frances of Rome church. “This is a place of worship. You have no place here.”

Other parishioners yelled out obscenities and insults.

One man who stood outside the church to keep out activists and the media told protest organizer Mary Grant, who said she was molested by a priest as a child, “I bet you enjoyed it, didn’t you?”

A female parishioner charged a man holding a picket sign and hit him in the chest. Police, who had been nearby monitoring the confrontation, were summoned by a protester.

Norma Arista, 42, of Azusa, was arrested for allegedly assaulting protester Jim Falls of Los Angeles.

“Sadly, this has been the posture of the church,” said Grant, who leads the Southern California Chapter of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests). “To treat us as the enemy. If they blame the victim, then they don’t have to take responsibility.”

The standoff continued for several hours as parishioners walked in and out of the church. Some cursed at protesters before entering, while others stood outside holding hands to block the front steps to the church. Others, however, ignored the protesters.

Grant’s group took their campaign to raise awareness of sexual abuse by priests to St. Frances because of an investigation involving the church’s pastor, Father David F. Granadino.

April 23: A couple weeks before I had heard a stat that fascinated me: Americans account for only 6% of the Catholics in the world. Perhaps, as the Vatican talks neared, we could use that as a starting point to explain the dissonance between the way American Catholics looked at the abuse scandal and the way the Vatican had dismissed its importance.

Larry Stammer and our Rome correspondent, Richard Boudreaux, expanded the idea in a story that was published the morning the talks were to start:

VATICAN CITY — A month ago, long after clerical sex scandals had mushroomed in the United States, the Colombian cardinal overseeing the worldwide Roman Catholic priesthood fielded a barrage of questions from reporters here over how the Vatican would respond.

Defensive and irritated, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos portrayed the scandals as the product of an American “culture of pansexuality and sexual licentiousness” and noted sourly that most of the questions were in English. “This by itself is an X-ray of the problem,” he said.

Today, when 12 American cardinals lay the sex abuse crisis before Pope John Paul II and his top aides, what the Vatican had long viewed as an “American problem” will become its own.

The Americans’ immediate goal is to persuade the Vatican to authorize the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to impose unprecedented binding procedures on all 195 U.S. diocesan bishops for addressing clerical sex abuse.

But more fundamentally, the extraordinary two-day meeting here is an opportunity to bridge a cultural gap between the Curia–the central Vatican bureaucracy that is dominated by Italians and, to a lesser extent, by other Europeans and Latin Americans–and Catholics in the United States, whose church is one of the world’s largest and richest.

The divide reflects conflicting values: New World openness versus Old World secrecy, American home rule versus Vatican centralization, Anglo-Saxon CEO-style management versus a Mediterranean forgive-and-forget attitude toward sinners.

The chasm helps one understand a range of conflicts between the Vatican and American Catholics during John Paul’s long reign, including disputes over academic freedom at Catholic universities and inclusive language in the liturgy. And it helps explain why the pope and his aides failed at first to grasp the scale of the current crisis, the American church’s worst in modern times.

…The two sides have a history of misunderstanding.

Since the 19th century, when Pope Leo XIII cracked down on what he called “Americanism,” the Curia has viewed American culture as deeply rooted in Calvinist individualism, lacking a strong concept of community or the church.

More recently, in 1989, John Paul became concerned that the American church was spinning beyond his control. He summoned all American archbishops, including cardinals, to Rome. The discussion ranged widely–from the high rate of remarriage for divorced American Catholics to the American hierarchy’s tolerance for dissent within the church.

John May, then archbishop of St. Louis, crystallized the clashing perspectives in his opening remarks.

“Authoritarianism is suspect in any area of learning or culture,” he said. “To assert that there is a church teaching with authority binding for eternity is truly a sign of contradiction to many Americans who consider the divine right of bishops as outmoded as the divine right of kings.”

April 24: On the first of the two days of talks, Larry and Beth (both of whom we’ve sent to Rome) and Richard struggle with the pope’s remarks on priestly abuse. It is a classic example of a story where what a subject doesn’t say, and has said in the past, is as important as what he does say:

ROME — Pope John Paul II, in a ringing denunciation of sexual abuse, declared Tuesday that there is no place in the Roman Catholic priesthood for those who molest the young.

Speaking to an extraordinary meeting of cardinals summoned from the United States in the wake of the clerical sex scandal rocking the American church, John Paul called the abuse of minors both a civil crime and “an appalling sin.”

The pope’s emphatic statement, several cardinals said later, was an unmistakable signal that he expects bishops to cooperate fully with law enforcement authorities in ferreting out offending priests.

But he offered no explicit guidance on whether the church should enforce a “one-strike” rule to defrock any priest found to have molested a minor. Some cardinals, meeting at the Vatican to set guidelines to handle sex offenses, said the pope’s nuanced statement was open to interpretation.

Shifting from the defensive tone of his recent remarks, which had agonized over the scandal’s demoralizing blow to the church and its clergy, John Paul sounded a note of compassion for the victims of sexual abuse. Since January, dozens of American priests have been accused of sex crimes, and bishops have been faulted for covering up some of the incidents.

“To the victims and their families, wherever they may be, I express my profound sense of solidarity and concern,” John Paul said in remarks to the cardinals that were later released by the Vatican. The actions of abusive priests, he said, have caused “suffering and scandal to the young” and undermined trust in the church.

“People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young,” the pope told the 12 U.S. cardinals, two U.S. bishops and leading Vatican cardinals. “They must know that bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality.”

But John Paul, who believes in the transformative power of religious experiences, also raised the possibility of a changed life for a repentant fallen priest.

“We cannot forget the power of Christian conversion, that radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God,” he said.

Whether a priest undergoing such a “conversion” would be allowed to remain a priest remained open to question.

“This isn’t clear to me either,” Cardinal Francis George of Chicago told reporters. “So I’m not sure where that [papal] discourse leads us on that question of ‘zero tolerance.’ ” Even the U.S. delegation, George said, was not in agreement on that issue.

“There is a difference between a moral monster who preys upon little children, who does so in serial fashion, and someone who perhaps under the influence of alcohol engages in an action with a 17- or 16-year-old young woman who returns his affections,” George told reporters.

…Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the reassignment of abusive priests remained “a thorny issue.”

One thing was clear: Cardinals and bishops who weeks ago avoided public discussion of the growing scandal are now eager to pose as articulate reformers. Public relations representatives for the U.S. bishops conference were flown here from Washington to arrange daily media briefings, and several cardinals spoke to reporters on their own.

April 25: On the second day of the Vatican talks, the American cardinals emerged with a statement that fell short of the tough stance most Americans would have anticipated of any other organization up to its knees in scandal. Watch how Larry and Richard Boudreaux employed measured phrasing to capture (1) the weasel language the communiqué used and (2) the attempt to look ahead to explain how this dilemma might be resolved:

VATICAN CITY — Emboldened by Pope John Paul II and stung by an unprecedented sexual abuse scandal at home, U.S. Roman Catholic cardinals called Wednesday for steps making it easier to defrock priests guilty of sexual abuse. But they stopped short of a “zero-tolerance” dismissal policy.

Wrapping up two days of extraordinary sessions with the pope and senior Vatican cardinals, the U.S. delegation said it had set the stage for a comprehensive plan to wrest the American church from its most serious moral and legal crisis in modern times.

Their final communique was short on specifics. It called for new procedures to speed the dismissal of any priest “who has become notorious and is guilty of the serial, predatory sexual abuse of minors,” as well as first-time offenders deemed to be incorrigible. It recommended safeguards to screen out problem candidates from seminaries.

But it made no mention of other steps many of the cardinals had said they wanted: a “one-strike” rule for all future sex offenders, mandatory reporting of all abuse cases to law enforcement agencies, and greater involvement of lay Catholics in overseeing the church’s treatment of offenders. Nor did it spell out how church canon law should be changed to make it easier to defrock priests while protecting their right to appeal.

Even so, the high-powered meetings are likely to be remembered as a defining moment, when an issue that the Vatican once viewed as an “American problem” irreversibly became its own. The meetings also increased pressure on American bishops to formally adopt a plan that will convince Catholics that they can entrust the church with their children.

Even with tougher standards of accountability and openness on sexual abuse, the cardinals said, it might take years for the church to regain its credibility. The scandal, they conceded, has not only damaged victims and cost millions of dollars in settlements, but it has also weakened the church’s moral voice.

Critics of the church were disappointed by the communique but not surprised.

“Historically, there has been, and there remains, a huge gap between what bishops say and what bishops do,” said Barbara Blaine of Chicago, founder of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “Their promises sound good, but their performance is lacking.”

Fundamental decisions lie ahead for the church. Chief among them is how to deal with priests who abused minors many years ago but have since appeared to be leading successful and healthy ministries. There is likely to be tension between bishops who believe in the Christian virtue of repentance and forgiveness, and an outraged public that seems in no mood to forgive and forget.

Before leaving Rome, the Vatican and U.S. cardinals dispatched a letter to the priests of America voicing “regret that episcopal oversight has not been able to preserve the church from this scandal.”

They called on bishops to set aside a day of prayer and penance throughout the United States “to implore reconciliation” between sinners and abused members of their flock.

That same day, we published a story by Gene Maddaus, who obtained a jailhouse interview, that reminded us how Los Angeles’ diversity sets up unusual dynamics–and unusual legal pleas:

A Pomona priest in jail on suspicion of molesting two girls said Wednesday that the allegations stem from a cultural misunderstanding.

Honesto Bismonte, 72, of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, was arrested Tuesday for allegedly molesting the girls about 50 times since 1997, when they were 8 and 12.

Speaking from the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga, Bismonte said that hugging and physical contact with children is far more accepted in his Filipino culture. “I’m sorry this has come this far,” he said, blaming the wave of current allegations against priests for his plight.

Los Angeles County sheriff’s detectives also are investigating Father Patrick Cotter, 70, a retired priest who once worked at St. Joseph’s. He allegedly was involved with a girl there several years ago, sources said, an accusation referred from the Los Angeles Police Department. Cotter, of South Pasadena, did not return telephone calls for comment. An archdiocese spokesman said Cotter is retired and not attached to any parish.

The probe of Cotter is one of several investigations of clergy being conducted by the sheriff’s family crimes unit.

Detectives said they have expanded their probe of Father David Granadino, 46, from the time he has worked at St. Frances of Rome in Azusa, where he now is pastor, to his former church, St. John of God in Norwalk.

“There are several adult males who have reported being molested by Granadino at the Norwalk church when they were kids more than 15 years ago,” said Sheriff’s Sgt. Dan Scott.

Detectives have interviewed more than 100 children and parents since a March 22 call to the Los Angeles archdiocese hotline, which was created to report sexual abuse allegations. Scott said detectives know of as many as five allegations of “inappropriate touching” by Granadino during church activities at the Azusa parish. Granadino, a Sheriff’s Department chaplain, has denied any misconduct, according to an exchange of e-mails by top archdiocese officials.

Meanwhile, in Rancho Cucamonga, Bismonte remains in jail in lieu of $200,000 bail as the San Bernardino County district attorney decides whether to press charges.

Bismonte acknowledged taking the girls to the park to play on the swings and said, “we used to wrestle.” Fontana Police Sgt. Robert Beltran said the girls told detectives the priest touched them over and under their clothing. Bismonte shared an apartment in Fontana with the girls’ aunt, who would frequently baby-sit the children, Beltran said. The girls said the touching stopped in 2001, according to Beltran, when Bismonte moved out of the apartment.

April 27: With Larry flying back from Italy, Teresa Watanabe is asked to do a follow piece. We give her very little direction. She finds her own angle:

After this week’s Vatican sessions on clergy sex abuse, Southern California’s Roman Catholic priests are urging their leaders to seize the historic moment. They want American bishops to debate not only abuse prevention but far-reaching reform measures, from healthier teachings on sexuality to more lay oversight of clergy personnel decisions.

America’s cardinals, meeting with Vatican officials in Italy, called Wednesday for steps making it easier to defrock priests guilty of sexual abuse. But they disappointed many critics by stopping short of a “zero-tolerance” dismissal policy. That reluctance increased pressure on American bishops to formally adopt a more specific plan when they meet in Dallas in June.

Interviews with area priests, however, made it clear that far more was on their minds.

“This is the worst scandal since the Reformation,” said Father John McAndrews, parochial vicar for St. Angela Merici Church in Brea. “This is the moment for reform.”

Greater lay involvement in church affairs as a way to increase accountability seemed to top the list of their hopes for reform.

McAndrews said Diocese of Orange priests are discussing a proposal to place lay members for the first time on boards that hire and assign priests. Some Los Angeles clergy back that idea as well.

“If there had been more parents involved in the personnel process, nobody would have allowed priests accused of sex abuse to be reassigned,” said Father David O’Connell of St. Frances X. Cabrini Church in Los Angeles.

Rome, however, has indicated less enthusiasm for empowering the laity than the American church. In 1997, for instance, Pope John Paul II approved measures to bar the laity from governing the church, preaching homilies, using the title “chaplain” and other duties. That occurred the same year that 500 Southern California priests unanimously decreed at a Palm Springs conference that the priest’s most important role was to empower the laity.

In Dallas, the bishops are expected to discuss ways to beef up seminary admission requirements. O’Connell said he saw a need for wholesale changes in the way men are trained for the priesthood to counter “arrested psychosexual development,” which has been cited as a contributing factor in numerous sex abuse cases. After this week’s Vatican sessions on clergy sex abuse, Southern California’s Roman Catholic priests are urging their leaders to seize the historic moment. They want American bishops to debate not only abuse prevention but far-reaching reform measures, from healthier teachings on sexuality to more lay oversight of clergy personnel decisions.

April 28: Beth Shuster flew back from Rome with Cardinal Mahony and was able to use some of her time to develop a Sunday profile of the way Mahony gracefully navigated the spiritual and secular worlds. We played that next to a sidebar by William Lobdell that pointed out a contradiction in Mahony’s rhetoric.

Beth’s mainbar:

“I regret terribly what happened–but maybe without that or something like that we wouldn’t be here.”

“I wish I could undo some of the things in the past myself, [but] now it’s really a chance to look to the future–from today forward.”

Vivendi Universal chief executive Jean-Marie Messier on the dismal performance of the company’s stock? Disney Chairman Michael Eisner on his poor ABC television ratings?

Neither. These are the words of Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, head of the largest Roman Catholic diocese in the country.

He is church leader and CEO, pastor and politician. And just as leaders of private corporations sometimes find themselves, he is involved in a crisis of damage control that tests his ability to simultaneously navigate the worlds of church doctrine and secular society.

The proliferating cases of sexual abuse by priests that were ignored or covered up by bishops and cardinals in past decades have put every American leader of the church on the defensive. Last week’s meeting of American cardinals and Vatican officials on the issue gave Mahony, 66, his greatest media exposure and a welcome change from a posture of defensiveness.

Several weeks ago, about 50 of Mahony’s private e-mails to his inner circle were leaked to the media, providing fuel for stories that questioned his sense of urgency about dealing with cases of priestly abuse.

The trip to Vatican City gave Mahony the opportunity to present himself as a reformer, and even his critics were impressed, if not convinced. Before he left for Rome, a week ago, he met with the media to outline his agenda for the extraordinary meetings with Pope John Paul II and other Vatican officials. He talked about the need to discuss such controversial issues as celibacy, the ordination of women and homosexuality in the church–carefully avoiding taking a stand in favor of any particular policy.

In Rome, he appeared on national news programs, morning and evening shows, conducted interviews with the national press and held a media briefing for the hometown press. His statements in favor of stronger procedures to fire errant priests were made in the tone of someone who recognized his organization had a problem and was determined to fix it. Unspoken was the fact that some of the reforms in Mahony’s own archdiocese were the result not of his doing, but rather of compliance with a 2001 court-approved settlement of a molestation lawsuit.

David Clohessy, national director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, contends Mahony has “escaped the scrutiny that many of his colleagues have been under because he is very, very media savvy.”

Clohessy said the cardinals who went to Rome avoided scrutiny only temporarily. “The sad truth is, they have to not only come back home but come back to Earth and deal with this enormous backlog of pain and denial and cover-up and unresolved issues around abusive priests.”

Indeed, upon his return to Los Angeles, Mahony was confronted with the arrest of a Pomona priest. Other sex-abuse cases against his clerics still are under investigation.

Several of the cardinals left Rome for a Mass and dinner for Catholic University of America in Philadelphia on Friday. But Mahony said he needed to return swiftly to Los Angeles, where he conducted a whirlwind series of interviews with the print and broadcast media and sent out letters about his trip to all the parishes in his three-county diocese–with copies of the pope’s statement attached….

Bill’s sidebar:

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony can brag that his archdiocese has implemented the toughest rules in the nation against priests who molest children. But that boast was made possible only because one of the church’s stubborn accusers insisted last December that the new policy be part of his record $5.2-million settlement.

Last week in Rome, America’s cardinals and Vatican officials grappled with exactly how unforgiving a sexual abuse policy should be: Should they adopt a “zero-tolerance” stance for priests with a decades-old molestation incident? They ended their two-day conference by issuing only a generally worded statement on sexual abuse, leaving the most difficult decisions to the nation’s bishops when they meet in June.

The Los Angeles archdiocese settled those matters months ago. Mahony, along with Bishop of Orange Tod D. Brown, enacted a new set of rules, including a “one-strike” provision that has triggered the recent dismissal of at least a dozen priests in both dioceses. Some of those priests had a single incident of misbehavior in their distant past. The new rules also include an independent advocate who is not a priest or diocesan employee for alleged victims, an 800 number for anonymous complaints and a mandatory program on abuse prevention at parochial schools.

In all, 11 changes were made to the dioceses’ policies in December as part of a settlement with abuse victim Ryan DiMaria. The settlement imposed a state-of-the-art sexual-abuse policy on Mahony and Brown a full month before the church’s sex scandal broke in Boston.

The beefed-up rules, whose implementation was overseen by Orange County Superior Court Judge James P. Gray, gave the prelates the look of prophets.

Mahony and Brown rarely refer to the legal settlement that brought about the new rules, though they frequently have highlighted the policy with pride in media reports, letters to parishioners and on Web sites.

For instance, in March, the Los Angeles archdiocese distributed to parishioners a brochure called “Respecting the Boundaries: Keeping Ministerial Relationships Healthy and Holy.” Archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg said at the time that the cardinal decided to hand out the information because of the surge of attention to priest sex scandals that erupted in January with the criminal trial of a Boston cleric accused of molesting 130 children.

“Cardinal Mahony thought … it was important for him to reiterate to the Catholic faithful that we have comprehensive policies on sex abuse, that we follow them carefully and review them regularly,” Tamberg said.

The informational campaign was one of the measures imposed by the settlement.

“Cardinal Mahony is giving this perception that he did this on his own,” said Katherine K. Freberg, one of DiMaria’s attorneys.

Mahony flatly denied Friday that he may have been forced into the new policies by lawsuits, saying that he had been developing and implementing the procedures well before the Dec. 4 settlement.

Which brings us up to today, Monday, April 29. Tomorrow is the first anniversary of the first posting on www.newsthinking.com. I’d like to express my gratitude to the scores of supportive e-mails that readers have sent. One of my favorites came last week:

“…I have often wished I could tail a great reporter around for a couple of weeks, watching them report and write their stories. Newsthinking is the next best thing. Thanks!”

If somebody had told me I would be posting every week for 52 weeks, I would have laughed. But it’s been exhilarating to have a dialogue with so many reporters. You remind me why this is the greatest way in the world to make a living, if also the most absurd and maddening. I can’t promise to keep up the same posting schedule for the next 52 weeks, but you’ve inspired me to keep trying. For that, I owe you big-time.