Reading between the lines of a bishop’s “apology”

Yesterday, one of the country’s most prominent Catholic bishops apologized for his role in clergy sexual abuse cases dating back to the 1980s.

Except that his statement is not really an apology at all. Here’s what Bishop Thomas J. Curry of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles said:

“I wish to acknowledge and apologize for those instances when I made decisions regarding the treatment and disposition of clergy accused of sexual abuse that in retrospect appear inadequate or mistaken.” Curry added, “Like many others, I have come to a clearer understanding over the years of the causes and treatment of sexual abuse, and I have fully implemented in my pastoral region the archdiocese’s policies and procedures for reporting abuse, screening those who supervise children and abuse prevention training for adults and children.”


Bishop Thomas J. Curry

Let’s be clear: Anyone raised in the Catholic Church—much less a 70-year-old bishop—knows full well what it means to be contrite. In fact, deeply felt and expressed contrition is a requirement for Catholics who wish to seek God’s forgiveness for sinning.

No, Curry’s statement is not an apology, but a defense, one that he is putting forth now, as he faces a landmark clergy abuse lawsuit involving more than 500 victims. The suit has already led to the release of documents plaintiffs say prove that church officials covered up cases of abuse. More documents are expected to be released soon. All told, the evidence could point to abuses committed by nearly 90 priests.

When you strip away the attorney-approved language from Curry’s statement, what the bishop really said was, “I didn’t know any better.” And despite his powerful position as advisor to a cardinal of the largest archdiocese in the nation, Curry indicated that he was simply “like many others.” In other words, anyone else in his situation would have done the same thing. I am not guilty.

The statement is disgraceful and disrespects victims of sexual abuse. The documents that have been released reveal communications between Curry and Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, who is also Archbishop Emeritus of Los Angeles, in which they discussed ways to conceal cases of molestation from law enforcement. (Mahoney issued a more heartfelt apology to victims on January 21.) One particular case involves a priest who admitted to sexu­ally ab­us­ing 13 boys dur­ing his 36 years in the Los Angeles arch­diocese. Yet, rather than reporting the man to police, Curry said he should be sent to “a lawyer who is also a psychiatrist,” thereby putting “the reports under the protection of privilege.”

It is doubtful Curry or Mahoney will face criminal charges, as the 2007 lawsuit was filed decades past the three-year statute of limitations for felonies that would apply here, so Curry is most likely concerned with how his statements might affect the lawsuit.

But I venture that Curry’s failure to issue a genuine apology to victims and others reveals something else: As a devout Catholic, the bishop may feel he has nothing to apologize for.

prayingcatholicWe can’t know just how badly Curry feels about his mistakes, but I’m willing to bank on the fact that he doesn’t believe he committed mortal sins. (A mortal sin is a violation so egregious that the sinner is believed to have broken with God; to redeem himself, the sinner must confess, act contrite, and pay penance before death.) That’s because one criterion that defines “mortal sin” is the individual’s full knowledge of the sin at the time of the act. If the sinner didn’t think he did anything wrong, or was lacking “a clear understanding,” as Curry put it, he is not a mortal sinner in the eyes of the church. Of course, Curry could look upon his acts as venial (“less grave”) sins, in which case he would have avoided going to hell by confessing to a priest, acting contrite, and paying penance, according to church doctrine. Still, all of this would have taken place within the church.

What about the rules of ethics, you may ask? Or secular law? Prior to this point in time—perhaps as Curry was gaining that “clearer understanding”—why couldn’t he have felt the need to “confess” to a prosecutor, or to victims?

Because the Catholic Church primarily looks to its own leaders to determine when congregants must make amends. To illustrate this belief, look no further than a letter sent to all bishops in 2001. It was cowritten by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. At the time, Ratzinger headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the office that decides many of the church’s clergy sexual abuse cases. “The functions of judge, promoter of justice, notary and legal representative can validly be performed for these [child sexual abuse] cases only by priests,” wrote Ratzinger.

Let’s hope that the light being shown on cases, such as those scandalizing the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, will make it harder for church officials to come up with excuses as to why they protected perpetrators of child sexual abuse, instead of the victims.


ADDENDUM: On January 31, 2013, Bishop Thomas Curry stepped down from his post at the Los Angeles Archdiocese. The next day, Cardinal Roger Mahony was stripped of his duties by his successor, Archbishop Jose Gomez.


  1. ‘When you strip away the attorney-approved language from Curry’s statement, what the bishop really said was, “I didn’t know any better.”’

    Which is fascinating, isn’t it. If he didn’t know any better, why didn’t he? If he didn’t, what does that say about the church as a supposed source of moral absolutes that are better than everyone else’s? The way the pope talks these days, I’d have thought a Catholic priest would just automatically know any better, by virtue of being a Catholic priest.

    • Such a good point you raise, Ophelia. The church (i.e. the hierarchy) never cared about children’s welfare, only about ensuring they would do as they were told and stay in the church. The rules in the Catholic Church are many and generally have much more to do with protocol, rather than morality. This is exemplified by Mahony’s blog ( which is a letter to Gomez (his superior who canned him): “Nothing in my own background or education equipped me to deal with this grave problem,” he writes, and goes on to say that the church was just as ignorant of these things as school districts and youth organizations. Maybe it’s time men “of the cloth” begin to admit that they are no more godly than the rest of humanity.

  2. sailor1031 says:

    I guess they don’t read their New Testaments. It’s right there in Mark 9:42 and Matthew 18.6. One wonders how could they not have known that this was wrong? Answer: of course they knew it was wrong. But “scandal” was seen as potentially damaging (because of potential loss of lay members and therefore loss of business). Questions of morality were not seen as important or even relevant. After all morality has never been an attribute of RCC Inc, or most other business corporations.

  3. Julie Hutchison says:

    Are they saying they didn’t know it was wrong to abused children or just that they didn’t know covering it up was wrong? Also I would think abusing children would be a mortal sin not to mention illegal, and there is no way they didn’t know that.

    • sailor1031 says:

      They have said both at various times. That they didn’t know the rapes themselves were crimes and that they didn’t know they had an obligation to report to the police. In fact I saw a bishop quoted just the other day to the effect tt they didn’t know they had to report such crimes, or suspected crimes, because there is no law obligating clergy to report them as there is for medical personnel. Another pathetic example of the total amorality of the catholic hierarchy…..

    • I believe that those in church leadership knew it was wrong to molest children. Their position was that they didn’t understand pedophilia or the difficulty of changing that behavior. After all, they believed that they all could and would live asexual, celibate lives. They thought that with a little prayer and counsel, the pedophile priests would be reformed. After a trip to confession, the sin of the abuse was forgiven, and the molesters were restored to full fellowship, including unlimited access to children.

      But the church leadership turned a blind eye to the sexual (and other) sins of the clergy, fearing that revealing priests as the flawed and fallible human beings they were would reduce the respect for and submission to priestly authority and bring scandal upon the church. I think that they rationalized that protecting the reputation and authority of the institutional RC Church was more important in the bigger picture than protecting the children. It was a craven and immoral, utilitarian, “the end justifies the means,” position that flies in the face of other man-created doctrines of the church (the church still doesn’t allow contraception in order to avoid serious health risks to women or financial and emotional burdens to families ill-prepared to raise large families).

      The widespread homosexual, pedophilic, and adulterous behavior among the priesthood is winked at in order to maintain the largely unhealthy requirement of a celibate priesthood. As fewer people enter “vocations” (nuns, as well as priests), I think the church also has lowered their standards, and more mentally and morally imbalanced men are being accepted for Holy Orders in order to keep priests in parishes. Unless the church starts accepting married and female priests, I think that in less than another generation, the RC church will be a thin shadow of itself, populated disproportionately by old, power-hungry men and misfits.

      • I could not agree more. The HBO special that premiered last night, “Mea Maxima Culpa,” revealed that the Catholic Church has been archiving, and keeping secret, cases of clergy-perpetrated child sexual abuse for 1,800 years. Of course, the church knows full well the immorality of such abuses, because it has known full well what kind of scandal the church would be mired in if those cases were made public. It has taken this long for the church to come up with new policies, including agreeing to comply with local reporting laws, not because church officials understand pedophilia better, but because it fears financial ruin due to lawsuits and an evaporating membership. The fact that Pope John Paul II protected a priest who was both one of the church’s most infamous serial pedophiles, as well as one of its most successful fundraisers, Marcial Maciel, says it all. As Ann says, the church never made child safety a priority, because it cared first and foremost about its own sustainability, and to achieve that meant protecting the reputation of the church, its priests, and its nuns. Protecting those reputations translates into a continuing membership, which has translates into dollars.

  4. Richard Russell says:

    False humility is the ultimate arrogance. Why am I getting a sick feeling that this is all about, “Our men do what they want to do, and whatever it is, is holy. If others disagree, we will shuffle our men around to make it all go away the way we want it to go away. We’re sorry if you don’t understand that. Maybe YOU need to pray.”

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