With Malice Toward Nuns

The priest sex-abuse scandal claims some new, elderly victims.

Nuns foot the bill for priest sex abuse

There is a part of me—my inner Republican, you could say—that knew what Tony Snow meant when he said he was quitting his $168,000-a-year job as White House press secretary so he could go make some real dough: “I ran out of money,” he explained, and all over California’s Rancho Santa Fe, heads nodded.

As out-of-touch as Snow’s remarks were—and perfectly consonant with the income disparities his ex-boss has so tirelessly strived to widen—the mortgage-owing, nice-stuff-coveting part of me had no flagstones to throw. As a friend of mine whispered at a party in the sort of home with light fixtures worth more than my life insurance, “It’s hell being in the lower quadrant of the upper 10 percent.”

In no dark corner of my heart, however, can I understand why the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has decided to begin raising the millions it owes to the victims of predatory priests by kicking some elderly nuns who work with poor people out of their Santa Barbara convent.

“We’re just so hurt by this,” said Sister Angela Escalera, who was apprised of the decision in a letter. “We’re not even worth a phone call,” she told the Los Angeles Times. Alas, Escalera, who works with undocumented immigrants and has lived in the convent for 43 years, will not be giving any more interviews any time soon. She and other members of the Sisters of Bethany have been silenced by the church they’ve served all their lives, under a gag order that speaks to the transparency that was promised to the faithful post-scandal.

The three sisters live in the two-bedroom home owned by the archdiocese and have maintained it mostly on Escalera’s SSI disability income. They are supposed to vacate by Dec. 31, though an earlier departure “would be acceptable as well,” said the eviction notice, which was signed by Monsignor Royale Vadakin, vicar general for the archdiocese.

Before she was banned from speaking with journalists, Escalera said, “What hurts most is what the money will be used for, to help pay for the pedophile priests. We have to sacrifice our home for that?”

As pure of a clue as the driven Snow, Cardinal Roger Mahony’s spokesman, Tod Tamberg, responded by assuring reporters that “the pain is being spread around. We’re losing our headquarters here” on Wilshire Boulevard, “and none of the employees got a pay raise this year.”

Other than the chancery, however, the convent was the first property to be publicly tagged with a “For Sale” sign as a direct result of the $660 million sex-abuse settlement, $250 million of which is to be paid by the archdiocese. Though that’s nobody’s pocket change, the archdiocese is not only one of the wealthiest in the country, but one of the largest property owners in Southern California.

According to a Times report last year, its some 1,600 properties are valued at $4 billion and include commercial parking lots, retail buildings, and oil wells, as well as the much-maligned Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, known popularly as the Taj Mahony, the $200 million modernist cathedral completed in 2002.

So, why begin on the backs of these servants of the poor—in full traditional habit, no less? I’m trying to imagine the conversation in which the men who protected the men who victimized children thought to spread the pain first to these women—”Hey, let’s start with Sister Angela! That’ll show ‘em our priorities!”—but I just can’t get there.

And if, as I am sorry to suspect, the decision to send the sisters packing was actually intended to garner sympathy—and maybe even a tidy profit—for the church—well, this scandal may never be over. In Santa Barbara, supporters Catholic and non-Catholic have rallied to the side of the sisters. In the community where they are known and beloved, supporters are raising money that might allow them to buy the convent outright, presumably for more than the $97,746 value put on the property by the county assessor’s office; other small, older homes in the neighborhood are selling for upward of $700,000.

But the damage done by this miscalculation—however it was hatched—raises questions about how much Cardinal Mahony’s leadership and judgment have improved since he allegedly shuffled known sex offenders from one parish to another.

The bill has come due, and hard decisions must be made. But the idea of elite men kicking women on walkers to the curb is not, I think, one that will inspire many of the faithful to put a little something extra in the basket on Sunday.