Roman Catholic Archbishop José H. Gomez shook the Catholic world yesterday by imposing unheard-of sanctions against his predecessor, Cardinal Roger Mahony for Mahony’s actions to shield predatory priests from accountability during his years as the head of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. In most of the coverage, this was rightly hailed as a strong action to advance the cause of justice, and to provided at least a measure of accountability even though criminal liability is probably not possible because the statute of limitations has probably expired.  The coverage misses one very negative aspect of Gomez’ actions, however. Before we get to that, let me provide a little background.

In 2007, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles (then headed by Mahony) settled a group of over 500 civil suits over clerical child abuse, and since then has been fighting the release of their files related those cases. When they lost the battle to keep the files themselves secret, they tried to argue that the names of not just victims but church officials should be redacted. Some records were released last week, and last Monday, they lost their redaction argument, and yesterday, rather than appeal the ruling, they released the rest of the files.

What emerged was not pretty. Not pretty at all:

Fifteen years before the clergy sex abuse scandal came to light, Archbishop Roger M. Mahony and a top advisor plotted to conceal child molestation by priests from law enforcement, including keeping them out of California to avoid prosecution, according to internal Catholic church records released Monday.

The archdiocese’s failure to purge pedophile clergy and reluctance to cooperate with law enforcement has previously been known. But the memos written in 1986 and 1987 by Mahony and Msgr. Thomas J. Curry, then the archdiocese’s chief advisor on sex abuse cases, offer the strongest evidence yet of a concerted effort by officials in the nation’s largest Catholic diocese to shield abusers from police. The newly released records, which the archdiocese fought for years to keep secret, reveal in church leaders’ own words a desire to keep authorities from discovering that children were being molested.

Ugly. The memos show Mahony and his staff shuttling some priests out of the country, and cherrypicking therapists for others, all in an effort to avoid accountability.

Mahony retired in 2011, and Archbishop José H. Gomez took over the archdiocese on March 1, 2011. Yesterday, in his letter accompanying the release of the unredacted files, Gomez described reading through them:

I find these files to be brutal and painful reading. The behavior described in these files is terribly sad and evil. There is no excuse, no explaining away what happened to these children. The priests involved had the duty to be their spiritual fathers and they failed.

We need to acknowledge that terrible failure today. We need to pray for everyone who has ever been hurt by members of the Church. And we need to continue to support the long and painful process of healing their wounds and restoring the trust that was broken.

I cannot undo the failings of the past that we find in these pages. Reading these files, reflecting on the wounds that were caused, has been the saddest experience I’ve had since becoming your Archbishop in 2011.

Then came the bombshell:

My predecessor, retired Cardinal Roger Mahony, has expressed his sorrow for his failure to fully protect young people entrusted to his care. Effective immediately, I have informed Cardinal Mahony that he will no longer have any administrative or public duties. Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Curry has also publicly apologized for his decisions while serving as Vicar for Clergy. I have accepted his request to be relieved of his responsibility as the Regional Bishop of Santa Barbara.

A retired Cardinal has very, very few limits on their authority. Broadly speaking, they are not answerable to ordinary bishops as they travel from place to place or serve on various committees, commissions, and organizations within the church, as ordinary priests would be. Within their former diocese, however, the local bishop does maintain certain authority, and Gomez just exercised it.

Gomez can’t strip Mahony of his rank as a Cardinal, nor can he prohibit Mahony from saying mass or serving as a priest. Only the Vatican can do that. Gomez can — and apparently did — say to Mahony specifically and the public more generally that he will not allow him to appear publicly in the archdiocese in any official capacity. None. It’s a huge slap at his predecessor, and puts the Vatican in a difficult spot as they determine what steps they will take.

But as unprecedented as it is, it’s not the grand move for accountability that most in the media seem to think that it is.

Gomez has been in charge in LA for 23 months. In his first week, like anyone in a new job, he did a lot of things to get up to speed. He no doubt was introduced to the regular routine of his new position, and brought up to speed on whatever big issues were sitting on his desk. The very hottest of those issues were these hundreds of lawsuits, and Gomez surely met with the archdiocesan legal folks to find out where things stand.

If Gomez is a competent administrator at all, discussions of any pending legal case against the archdiocese would have asked basic questions like “How bad is it? What kind of problems do these files present? What damages do we face?” Given the worldwide outrage about child abuse in the Catholic Church, Gomez ought to have sat down that day and started reading through these files, to see what kind of powder keg was sitting under his desk.

If he didn’t do that, he’s incompetent — and if he were that incompetent, the Vatican never would have appointed him to this very important see. If he were that incompetent, he would have failed in other ways in earlier positions. If he were that incompetent, it would have shown up in all kinds of other ways.

So if he’s not incompetent, then the “brutal and painful reading” of these files didn’t happen this week. It didn’t happen last week, or last month. Gomez probably read these files almost two years ago, or at least started to, and it’s only now — when the courts forced their release — that Gomez finally publicly spoke out on this with such strength and imposed what sanctions he could on Cardinal Mahony.

Better late than never, I suppose.

But if Gomez’ delay allowed the statute of limitations to expire on any of Mahony and Curry’s crimes, it is just as unconscionable as their actions were, and he deserves the same sanction. At least.

Don’t get me wrong: I am very pleased at what Gomez did with regard to Mahony. Gomez apparently levied the strongest sanctions he could under his own authority, and it puts the Vatican in a very difficult position, as they decide what actions they will take.

I just wish it had been “effective immediately” 22 months ago.

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photo of Cardinal Mahony h/t to Shay Sowden and used under Creative Commons.