During Dark Hours in L.A., Catholics Move Forward

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles is moving forward in hope while facing massive settlement costs in sex abuse case.

LOS ANGELES — As the Archdiocese of Los Angeles prepares to sell off property and slash expenses to pay its share of the $660 million sexual-abuse settlement reached with more than 500 claimants, faithful Catholics here report a sense of “sadness” but also of moving forward.

This latest settlement will cost the Church $250 million. About 100 cases against religious orders that work within the archdiocese remain outstanding.

Shortly after the settlement, Pope Benedict XVI expressed his pain and concern over the “devastating scale” of clerical sexual abuse in Los Angeles, according to Catholic News Service.

The New York Times reported this latest payment “leaves the archdiocese free to move on, its leadership untouched and its parishes and schools unaffected.” But, in fact, the sex scandals are something Catholics here will never “get over,” said Deacon David Estrada, executive director of the archdiocese’s Office of Synod Implementation.

“On the contrary,” Deacon Estrada said, “this will remain in our collective memories for a long, long time and, historically, be part of our heritage forever.”

And yet in the middle of this dark hour, Deacon Estrada said Catholics here also feel a sense of moving forward with “new hope and new challenge.”

Religious Sister of Charity Edith Prendergast, director of the archdiocesan Office of Religious Education, also expressed hope.

“We don’t know which of our programs, if any, will be affected. It’s all too soon,” she said. She noted, however, she has heard that when anyone on the staff in the chancery leaves, they will not be replaced.

The chancery building is up for sale to help pay the settlement costs. Whether the chancery will have to vacate the premises depends on whether or not the new owners will be willing to lease back the building.

In anticipation of the sex-abuse payouts, Cardinal Roger Mahony announced in May that some 50 properties owned by the archdiocese would soon be up for sale, with possible others to follow. The properties to be sold were acquired to establish parishes, schools and convents, and for other similar ministry purposes, the cardinal said.

“No parishes or parish schools will be closed to fund these settlements,” Cardinal Mahony promised.

One program Sister Edith directs that will remain unaffected by the financial cuts is the Religious Education Congress, the largest annual gathering of Catholics in the nation. The 2007 Congress, held in Anaheim Stadium, was a record-breaking event, with 40,886 registrants and 196 speakers.

And that’s not the only bright light in the darkness.

People of the Resurrection

Interviewed before the lawsuits were settled July 15, Humberto Ramos, associate director of religious education, said, “I think the greatest news here is the people: People of the Resurrection. We feel the pain. But there is also a sense of hope, of moving on.”

Every Sunday throughout the archdiocese, Mass is offered in more than 40 languages. Each year, some 800 people pour through the catechist formation program, 600 of them in the Spanish-speaking community alone.

“With the fact that we have fewer priests, into the future we want to be sure that our laypeople are well-trained, well-formed,” Sister Edith said.

Although numbers don’t tell the whole story, they tell part of it. And the numbers are growing. Between 1950 and 2006, as the Los Angeles population rose from 4.5 million to 11.3 million, the percentage of Catholics leaped from 18.3% to 38.6%.

“In 2004 alone, we had 90,000 infant baptisms in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, more than the Chicago and New York archdioceses combined,” Deacon Estrada said. “Our Catholic population is growing here. What a wonderful gift!”

Years before the latest round of sex-abuse charges hit, the synod — a coming together of Catholic laity and hierarchy — was set up to chart the course for the archdiocese into the third millennium based on a renewed vision of Church.

And despite the archdiocese’s struggles, that renewal remains on the move.

Eucharist-Centered Lives

Msgr. Lloyd Torgerson, pastor of St. Monica Catholic Community in Santa Monica, said, “The thing that’s extraordinary is that with all of the struggle that [the sex-abuse tragedy] has brought to our communities, our people continue to support their local churches. They are attending Mass in record numbers in some areas.” St. Monica serves 6,300 families.

“It’s a struggle, and we have to face that,” Msgr. Torgerson added. “But amid that struggle, folks are still finding the Eucharistic community central to their lives.”

As the number of diocesan priests has fallen by a few hundred, permanent deacons have moved in to help make up for the loss. The number of permanent deacons in the archdiocese jumped from 26 in 1976 to more than 300 today. In June alone, 60 men were ordained to the diaconate.

Catholic News Service reported the celebration in Santa Barbara as “the largest group of deacons ordained at one time in the history of the archdiocese and possibly in the country.”

Meanwhile, educating the burgeoning Hispanic population is a top priority.

Through the Church, Spanish-speaking Catholics in Los Angeles can take basic and advanced courses in the faith and can even earn master’s degrees in pastoral ministry. They then take their master’s degrees back into their parishes to educate other Catholics.

“I think people as a whole are wanting to move forward,” Ramos said. As support for this belief, Ramos recalled a recent street march during which 5,000 to 6,000 Hispanics turned out to support Cardinal Mahony.

Not only that, but on May 19, tens of thousands of Catholics flocked to the Rose Bowl to participate in “The Rosary Bowl” and pray for world peace and strong families. During the celebration, the largest outdoor recitation of the Rosary in Southern California in 50 years, the Rosary was said in more than 40 languages.

Referring to the sex scandals as “the tragedy,” Estrada said, “Sure, it hurt. Sure, there was much that needed to be done for the sake of the victims. There was harm done, no doubt about it. But, nonetheless, it hasn’t led us to despair, but to hope and a sense of renewal.”

Sister Edith said, “There’s a lot of energy here and a lot of sense of people moving on with their lives and with their ministries.”

Is there a springtime of the Church in Los Angeles? While not denying his sadness over all that has happened, Estrada replied, “I think so. I think it is beginning to bud, and the best is yet to come.”

Sue Ellin Browder

writes from Willits, California.