Immigrants and the Catholic Church’s Sex Scandal

Why L.A. Isn't Boston (the Real Reason)

The scandal moves to California
The epicenter of the Catholic priest sex abuse scandal is poised to move west to California. That’s because a new state law , effective Jan. 1, 2003, did away with the statute of limitations for one year, allowing victims to sue employers of known sexual molesters. More than 100 new lawsuits have already been filed against Catholic dioceses in California.

But will California Catholics respond with the same shock, outrage, and fury as Boston Catholics? Most bets are “no.” But I’m not buying it. What I’m not buying are the reasons being given for why California Catholics?and Los Angeles Catholics in particular?won’t take to the streets the way Boston Catholics have.

I’m hearing it’s because Los Angeles Catholics are largely a new immigrant population (from Mexico and other places South, as well as from Asia, especially the Philippines). Immigrant Catholics in Boston (largely Latino) proved Cardinal Bernard Law’s biggest base of support even in the heat of the firestorm.

Humble and obedient, eh?
According to Boston College history professor Thomas H. O’Connor ( National Catholic Reporter, Jan. 31 ), Boston’s new immigrant population is “very traditional, humble, pious, obedient.”

Having grown up with immigrant Latino parents I can attest to my family’s traditional and humble ways. But merely to say “obedient” to explain away Latinos’ actions is to completely miss the larger context in which new immigrants pray, live, and work.

Boston’s third and fourth generation of majority Irish- and Italian-American middle class Catholics could afford to make the sex abuse scandal the central issue in 2002. They already have better paychecks, better health care, and better schools.

New immigrants, however, fight a daily battle to make basic ends meet on minimum wages. They live without health care coverage. They struggle with inadequate schools for their children.

But contrary to the idea that immigrants are just humble, I’ve seen Los Angeles janitors take to the streets to demand better salaries and health insurance. Bus drivers have done the same. Hotel workers too. The labor movement in Los Angeles is alive and moving and largely led by Catholic immigrants. So much for obedient.

The Church and immigrant struggles
A key ally in all of these struggles is the Catholic church. Many California priests speak out publicly on behalf of striking workers. And some 2,000 volunteers from parish-based St. Vincent de Paul groups throughout Los Angeles help immigrants with food, prescription medicines, and emergency rent money. Another Catholic fund helps thousands of L.A.’s immigrant children attend Catholic schools on scholarship. Catholic Charities of California serves more than a million people each year.

In the U.S., undocumented immigrants (and there are 2 million in Los Angeles, mostly Catholic) are frequently treated with hostility and do not have full human rights in spite of their vital importance to the U.S. economy. The Catholic church is one of the few institutions where immigrants are welcomed and treated with dignity and concern.

But already we’re seeing that the Boston Archdiocese ‘s financial woes are having a devastating effect on struggling immigrants. The archdiocese recently announced that financially troubled Boston Catholic schools will have to be closed. It no longer has the spare money to help them stay afloat.

Immigrant parents are angry at priests who abused children, are concerned about the victims, and feel disappointed in a church that has served them well in many other ways. They want to know the Catholic church is a safe place for their children.

But would immigrant solutions to the sex scandal resemble middle class solutions of large multi-million-dollar court cases that distribute money to a few hurting people, but with the unintended consequences of taking money from thousands of other hurting people?

As a Catholic, I think we would do well to listen to and think more broadly about the needs of all our Catholic people.