The Southern California Regional Director of the advocacy group Survivors of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) once wrote in a blog post that California is a “clergy sex abuse powder keg ready to explode.” Again, I might add.
Since a $660 million sex abuse lawsuit settlement was reached in 2007 with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, California priest abuse news has faded somewhat into the background. Cases in Delaware and Portland, Oregon along with numerous diocesan bankruptcies have overshadowed the California priest abuse landscape. However, this may be about to change. The California Supreme Court is poised to decide in early April if the 2001 statute of limitations extension was intended to be “retroactive” or not, ie, whether it even applies to cases from decades past. If so, then expect a whole new round of abuse cases to be brought; if not, expect an interesting and significant legislative battle over a new statute designed to provide more time for victims to come forward. So, this is a hugely significant decision, and parties on all sides are watching closely to see what the Court does.
As the Catholic priest sex abuse crisis rolls into its second decade, it is not surprising that California would play a large role. Let’s examine some key factors. 1)California is the only state in the Union other than Texas with two large metropolitan provinces-Los Angeles and San Francisco. 2)California was and largely still is an immigrant state whose Catholic identity is still pronounced. 3)Many of the key bishops embroiled in the sex abuse scandal have roots in California. 4)California’s Catholic bishops depended upon Irish priests in the early 20th Century to serve their growing congregation. Now, the Golden State’s bishops similarly rely on priests from foreign lands to serve the burgeoning immigrant populations from Asia, Russia, and Latin America. In the early part of the 20th century, the immigration issue was part of the landscape of abuse in California.
Now, let’s look at some of these key factors in more detail. California boasts two sprawling Archdiocese whose most recent former Archbishops were intimately involved in the present abuse crisis. Both Cardinals Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and William Levada of San Francisco presided over cases in which priests who’d been accused of the sexual abuse of minors were transferred, hidden, and covered. Questions remain about how much each man knew, and when he knew it. Most observers think that Mahony may have more to worry about than Levada. But both men had histories that were far more extensive than just their large Archdioceses. Mahony’s sex abuse problems began when he was serving as a Bishop in Stockton, California in the early 1980’s, prior to becoming the Archbishop of Los Angeles. Levada was formerly the Archbishop of Portland Oregon, where a long line of serial pedophiles wreaked havoc on children, both before and during Levada’s tenure. Most significantly for the immediate future, Levada is now Cardinal and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, the number two spot in the entire Catholic hierarchy, and the position that now Pope Benedict XVI had when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Much depends on the ruling of the California Supreme Court, and any follow up legislative effort to aid victims. But don’t be surprised if California soon moves to the front stage, again, of the clergy sex abuse scandal.