WHEN PARISHIONERS REVOLT: By the time I arrived on the scene, my parents had run out of gas when it came to middle names. My father wanted Walter; my mother wanted Wagner. Despite the overwhelming similarity between the two, the difference proved insurmountable. Besides, if I really wanted a middle name, they figured I could pick my own when I got confirmed. Confirmation — one of the seven sacraments — marks that milestone when young Catholics lucky enough to achieve the onset of puberty are mysteriously said to have reached the Age of Reason. That’s when they reportedly can choose to embrace the faith that hitherto had been foisted upon them. Like all Catholic ceremonies, confirmation is beautiful and moving. Signifying what I’m still not clear, the presiding bishop or priest confers upon his confirmees a faux slap across the face. In any other context, this would suggest that a duel at dawn was imminent. But the coolest thing about confirmation is that the confirmed get to pick a new name. Being a wannabe black back then, I found myself deliberating between Tyrone, Otis, or Jerome. Because only Jerome could be found on the menu of approved saint names, it would have to be Jerome. But there was some glitch, it turned out, and I’d have to wait a year. In that year — having taken seriously this Age of Reason thing — I came to the conclusion all religion was bunk. So when I was invited to the next scheduled confirmation, I declined.
No middle name. No slap in the face.
I mention this, as usual, because of the child sex-abuse firestorm now engulfing the Catholic Church. A month ago, Santa Barbara’s auxiliary bishop Thomas J. Curry was forced to resign because of his pivotal role in the sex-abuse cover-up scandal. In the 1980s, Curry served as the right-hand man for Los Angeles archbishop Roger Mahony, who would later be promoted to cardinal before his retirement two years ago. As such, it was part of Curry’s job description to deal with priestly pederasts. At the same time Curry stepped down, Mahony was famously rebuked by L.A.’s new Archbishop José Gomez for his failure to protect the children. Even more famously, Gomez relieved Mahony — who outranks him — of Mahony’s administrative duties. Up ’til then, Mahony could not have been more abject in his apologies to the abused. But once Gomez joined in — having “Hollywood Roger’s” shortcomings denounced from the pulpit in every parish at every mass one Sunday — Mahony changed his tune and issued one protest after the next, via his personal blog site. At that time, most Catholics assumed this meant Mahony and Curry would no longer be allowed to preside over confirmations. In the great scheme of things, that’s not much. But for Catholics looking for some concession, it was huge. So imagine the shock and revulsion that parents at St. Jude, a small but affluent parish in Westlake Village, felt upon receiving written notice that Curry would be presiding over their teenage child’s induction into the Army of Christ, scheduled for May 4. This notice was sent after Curry resigned and about the same time the Archdiocese began releasing — under court order — the personnel files of priests accused of molestation.
If and when Curry ever talks, I’m sure there will be a very logical explanation. He is by all accounts an impressive man, both learned and shrewd — the last survivor of the so-called Irish Mafia, which for decades built and ran the Church in Los Angeles — and endowed with a quiet disarming grace. But until he does, the files seem very damning. In one instance, it appears Curry all but warned one pedophile priest on loan from Mexico that he was in danger because the police were closing in. When that same priest — Fr. Nicolas Aguilar Rivera — told Curry he was thinking of going back to Mexico, Curry did not advise him to stay and face the music; nor did he warn the police that Fr. Nico was about to go on the lam. Later, when police investigators asked for the names of altar boys who may have served with Fr. Nico, Curry and Mahony steadfastly refused to turn them over. Ultimately, the cops would get the names and discover that Fr. Nico was so prolific a predator he practically needed an assembly line.
In the Catholic scheme of things, Curry and Mahony are the shepherds, and the parishioners are the sheep. But at St. Jude, the sheep mutinied and bared their grass-eating fangs. Good lifelong Catholics objected to what they termed “a slap in the face,” and made it clear they did not want Curry doing the same — however symbolically — to their kids. They wrote letters, they made phone calls, they emailed, they texted and Twittered, Facebooked and Skyped. While St. Jude is only one parish, it serves as the confirmation hub for students attending 11 high schools. There are 90 kids — from 90 families — signed up to be confirmed this May. That’s a lot of Catholics. Curry and Gomez — independently and in consultation with one another — came to the conclusion that perhaps Curry had better things to do that day. Like anything. Or maybe even nothing at all. One might wonder how they could have been so astonishingly tone-deaf not to have figured this out on their own. But to even ask that question is to have missed the point of the past 20 years of Church history.
In the meantime, I have learned to live with a festering case of middle-name envy. There are many I would have liked, and typically they run to the ornate and ridiculous, like “Francis Xavier Aloysius” or “Ray Lee Wayne.” On some form I filled out long ago, I marked a big “X” next to the box indicating “no middle initial.” Somehow, this has confounded the record keepers. Now I get letters addressed to Nicholas X. Welsh. It ain’t a middle name. It’s not Walter or Wagner. But still, it’s a start.