The chair of the archbishop, Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels

According to the Los Angeles Times, Roman Catholic Archbishop José H. Gomez is worried about money. Says the paper, “The archdiocese has hired a New York company, Guidance In Giving Inc., to study the feasibility of a large-scale fundraiser that would shore up a bottom line hit hard by costly abuse litigation.” How large is large-scale? The Times puts the size of the proposed campaign at $200 million.

A couple of thoughts: First, if you pay a consultant to help you decide whether you should engage in a bigger project that would bring the consultant even more money . . . well, the words “conflict of interest” come to mind. But that’s a minor point. They know they need to raise the money, so the question they really are asking is how.

Which brings me to the second point: In my experience, there are two — and only two — times when a church organization undertakes a capital campaign like this.

One is when there is such excitement and energy that the time is right to take a bold step forward around a particular well-agreed-upon program. “We’re bursting at the seams, and we need to build a new building,” a parish might say, or “many of our parishes are growing dramatically, and we have to divide them, build new sanctuaries, and bring in new clergy to minister to them” says a bishop.

The other is when there is such a dire crisis that the energy of the community needs to be harnessed to address the crisis. “The creek behind the church overflowed its banks, flooded the basement, and caused a fire — and because it was all traced back to a flood, it is not covered by insurance because we don’t have flood insurance.”

Sadly, Archbishop Gomez and his archdiocese are not looking at the first set of circumstances here. Even more sadly, they are simultaneously trying not to admit it is a terrible crisis. According to NBC News, the archdiocese “is exploring a campaign to raise $200 million for the diocese to meet ‘a variety of needs,’ including ‘priests’ retirement, seminarian education, Catholic schools, Catholic Charities and parish needs.’”

Sorry, but exploring a capital campaign with such a diffuse set of goals and needs is an exercise of dubious worth. It makes it look like the archdiocese is still trying to downplay the horrendous abuse scandal that has unfolded in their midst. Potential donors will see this, shake their heads, and ask “why should be trust what you are saying about why you are asking for money, when you try so hard not to say what is driving all this?” Only if the campaign is honestly and clearly focused does it have a hope of success.

So let me offer a little advice to Archbishop Gomez. It’s free, from one pastor to another, and maybe it will help.

The campaign starts with a simple letter that goes something like this:

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

We, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, have been found liable for massive financial compensation because of hundreds of cases of abuse done by priests of this church and because of the failures of church leaders to appropriately deal with these abusive priests by turning over what we knew of these crimes to the criminal justice system. Compensation is due to the victims of this abuse, not simply because of a verdict in a courtroom, but as a matter of moral justice. It is, in a very real sense, a very public act of corporate contrition.

To be able to pay this restitution, including legal fees and the cost of counseling for these victims, we are initiating a financial appeal that we are calling “The Archdiocesan Penitential Fund.” All contributions to this fund will be used to pay first all the obligations to the victims of priest abuse, and only then will we turn to the costs we incurred in dealing with these legal cases. Not one penny will be diverted to “administrative costs” or any other archdiocesan expenses, and any surplus funds will be given to an appropriate outside charity involved in helping the survivors of abuse.

Until such time as this fund is filled, Cardinal Mahony will confine himself in prayer and contemplation in a monastic cell, leaving it only for meals taken in silence, for a one hour exercise period each day, and to use the bathroom. He will not have general access to the internet or email, but may watch a limited amount of television, and may have whatever books brought to his cell that can be borrowed from the library. The only exceptions to this are travel that he is obligated to do by virtue of his status as a bishop and cardinal of the church — attendance at meetings of the USCCB and various Vatican commissions where he has responsibility. When traveling for these purposes, he will travel in the most ordinary manner, stay in the most austere accommodations, and avoid any kind of luxury. To the extent that these obligations require access to a computer with internet access, he shall have such access.

Until such time as this fund is filled, I will give up my residence, and rotate my accommodations on a weekly basis from parish to parish, staying with the local priest in a guest bedroom if available, or on a cot if the rectory has no guest bedroom. I will do no entertaining at the archbishop’s residence, and will accept no invitations to anything but the most ordinary of meals. Like Cardinal Mahony, I also have obligations beyond Los Angeles, and will travel in a similiarly humble and austere manner.

Both Cardinal Mahony and I will also be looking at our personal finances, and pledge to make a substantial contribution toward this fund, to get the appeal off the ground. Insofar as I can, I will make repeated gifts, until such time as the fund is full.

But I also must ask for your help. This fund will not be filled without your generous support, and yet you are not the ones responsible for either the abuse done by priests nor the reprehensible actions to cover up this abuse and prevent the abusers from being held accountable. The failures are not yours in the pews, but ours in the archdiocesan office. Even so, the archdiocesan office is nothing without the thousands upon thousands of the faithful who support our work. You have financially supported us in good times, and now we must ask for your financial support in a time of great pain.

Beyond that, however, we need you to help hold us accountable for our failures.

Until such time as this fund if filled, the altars of every parish in the Archdiocese will have a six inch band of black cloth laid across them, hanging down in front of the altar as a visible reminder of the sorrow we have brought upon ourselves by our handling of these crimes. In the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, a second matching band of cloth will also be draped across the arms of the archbishop’s chair. When I approach the chair to take my seat, I will remove the cloth and place it in my lap, and when I stand up, I will drape it once more across the chair.

Until such time as this fund is filled, no flowers shall be used to adorn any sanctuary. This includes not only flowers at regular Sunday mass, but also Easter lilies and flowers at funerals. Let the space be bare, as another reminder of our brokenness.

Some may find these changes to be onerous and misplaced. I can easily hear good and faithful people ask “Do what you want with the cathedral, but why should our altar and our worship be changed? It is the abusive priests who carried out the abuse. It is the leaders of the archdiocese who compounded the abuse by hiding it from the authorities.” The changes I have laid out for ordinary parish life are precisely because both of those statements of responsibility are absolutely true.

We — Cardinal Mahony, myself, and the various others who have worked with us as we have led this archdiocese — have failed you, and we want you to remember that. We want you to remind us of that. We want you to demand that we do better. As I visit in parishes of the archdiocese, seeing that black band of cloth will remind me of the pain that the leaders of this church have caused every Roman Catholic of every parish in our archdiocese. It is not you who have failed, but I and the others who serve to oversee the work of the archdiocese, and we need you to hold us accountable.

I pray for the day that we will have raised the money that we owe to those who were the victims of the abusive priests, for it will mean that we have done what has been commanded of us, and paid what we owe to those who have suffered at the hands of the church. I pray for the day when those bands of cloth can be removed from the altars of our archdiocese. I pray for the day when the flowers return.

But one change will not be temporary. In the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, that band of cloth across my chair will remain as a permanent reminder of the pain that the shepherds of this Archdiocese brought upon those placed in our charge. It will remain as long as I am your archbishop, and I would hope future archbishops will retain it as well.

For the sake of those who were harmed by abusive priests, I pray that this campaign will be short. For the sake of future generations, I pray that our memory of it will be long.

The details of the campaign will be announced at a later date, but these liturgical changes will take place beginning on Ash Wednesday, February 13, 2013 — the beginning of Lent. May they bring a deeper meaning to this season of penitence and reflection, and help us take the first steps toward reconciliation.

In sorrow and in hope,
Most Reverend José H. Gomez
Archbishop of Los Angeles

Where the campaign goes after that is left as an exercise for the archbishop. For the sake of the victims of the abuse, and for the faithful whose trust in the church has been shaken, I hope he follows a path like this. Anything less honest, and the fundraiser is doomed to failure.

photo h/t to Andreas Praefcke, who graciously released it into the public domain.