There are certain organizations that seem to sit so high above the reproach of typical fault—of typical malfeasance—that when any wrongdoing on their part is exposed, it shakes foundations of people’s faith. Faith not just in religion, but in basic human decency.
As of Thursday, the Associated Press reports the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles has agreed to release more than 30,000 pages of previously private personnel files, many of which incriminate several high profile church officials in attempts to cover up cases of abuse over the years—former Cardinal Roger Mahony among a laundry-list of bishops, vicars and priests.
Despite the extent of the documents that will soon be made public, the Los Angeles Times reports that criminal charges will likely not be brought up against the Archdiocese or any of the individuals named because many cases are past their statute of limitations.
This revelation comes as a result of a long, ongoing investigation into the church’s history that began when an abuse scandal first broke in 2002. More than 500 alleged victims are named in the files, according to AP. The burgeoning scandal escalated to the point that Mahony himself was stripped of public church duties late Thursday.
But despite the sense of injustice one might feel that the individuals involved in these alleged cases might escape criminal prosecution, that hardly seems the point. I would argue the individual cases of abuse are not the point.
These were heinous cases of individual men doing unforgivable acts, yes, but it’s important that we do not lose sight that they were the actions of individual men and not some greater conspiracy of corruption inside the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of LA.
The real crime here against the church’s followers and, by extension, its very cause were its attempts to cover up that these actions ever took place; placing a safeguard around its own needs before those of the flock it is supposed to be shepherding.
“That’s the irony in all this,” said attorney Ray Boucher, in an interview with AP. “In their vain attempt to protect the image of the church, they’ve tarnished it beyond repair.”
While Boucher might be underestimating people’s forgiveness or overestimating the public relations abilities of the Archdiocese, he does sum up my own feelings on the matter. Why try to protect the reputation of those unworthy at the cost of shaking people’s faith? At what point does the church forget its own purpose in sacrifice to trying to “save face?”
In fact, this case reminds me of something that occurred last year, a case involving another time-tested institution in which many place an extreme level of confidence in.
I am referring to the release of the “Perversion Files” by the Boy Scouts of America in October of last year, a brace of 1,200 confidential files detailing suspected sexual abuse cases in the decades prior. Again, we are discussing an American tradition that has positively influenced more young people over the years than can probably be fathomed that, because of its own self-serving needs, abandoned its own tenants.
Each case chronicled, both by the Perversion Files as well as the the soon-to-be examined files by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, was an opportunity. Each case was an opportunity to stand up, to nip a cancerous influence in the bud and to prove that these organizations truly represent the values which they (literally) preach.
People’s confidence may have been lessened, but likely would have had to accept that these institutions “did the right thing” by outing its own monsters without the need for prompting or prodding.
The reality, however, is far less encouraging.
Ultimately, whatever comes as a result of this failing by the church, its true effects won’t be able to be measured in any concrete terms: That is to say that if clergymen end up in jail, it will hardly be a measurable quantification of damage done to the church itself.
Because again, when people’s faith is shaken, it is difficult to steady.