'I FIND these files [about priests who sexually abused children] to be brutal and painful reading. The behaviour described in these files is terribly sad and evil. There is no excuse, no explaining away what happened to these children. The priests involved had the duty to be their spiritual fathers and they failed.''
These are the words, last Thursday, not of a victim nor an advocate, a lawyer, policeman or judge. They are the words of Los Angeles Catholic Archbishop Jose Gomez. Of themselves, they are perhaps franker than the usual church apology, but what made them really remarkable is what came next.
''My predecessor, retired Cardinal Roger Mahony, has expressed his sorrow for his failure to fully protect young people entrusted to his care. Effective immediately, I have informed Cardinal Mahony that he will no longer have any administrative or public duties.'' In a striking and unprecedented humiliation of the cardinal, Archbishop Gomez also had Mahony's former right-hand man in handling abuse allegations, Thomas Curry, resign as regional bishop of Santa Barbara.
For the first time, one bishop held another - a cardinal, indeed - accountable over abuse and acted against him. On the same day that Gomez dropped his LA bombshell, I outlined in The Age some of the reasons people have felt cynical about church promises of transparency and co-operation with the two Australian inquiries into how the churches dealt with clergy child sex abuse.
Several witnesses to the Victorian inquiry said the local dioceses were controlled by the Vatican, which had a history of privileging canon (church) law over secular laws. The Vatican has been slow to grasp the issues, largely thanks to the previous Pope John Paul II - a colossus when it came to courage against communism but a pygmy in fighting abuse.
Like many, I believe real progress requires cultural change in the church, which means a measure of recognition in the Curia (church officialdom) of its own flaws, a probably insoluble catch-22. As noted Vatican watcher John Allen has said, real power in the Vatican is exercised by at most a couple of dozen elderly men, largely secluded, who are unmoved by the demands of the 24-hour news cycle.
So Gomez' brave, moral and apparently unilateral action was astounding. Perhaps he too got tired of Vatican vacillating.
Ironically, in a novel by long-term Vatican correspondent Robert Blair Kaiser, Cardinal Mahony is the hero who introduces radical progressive changes. Nice idea, wrong hero - though Mahony has advocated immigration rights, winning him the gratitude of the Latinos who make up 40 per cent of Los Angeles' 4 million Catholics.
Mahony's plaintive reply to Gomez is that his response evolved over time, making Los Angeles ''second to none in protecting children'', and that Gomez, who replaced him in 2011, never previously raised any questions.
The files Gomez cited became public last week by order of a secular court: 124 of them, of which 82 detail allegations of child abuse. They contain 12,000 pages of letters, memos and other documents that show Mahony moved predators out of parishes, or the diocese, or even the country. One of the worse cases involved Father Jose Ugarte, who drugged and raped a boy in a hotel but was merely sent back to Spain for seven years and asked to find other employment.
Critics note that it took Gomez two years to reach his decision, made as the documents were released, although he must have been aware of what they contained far earlier. Would he have acted against Mahony without the court order? Perhaps not.
The Vatican, seemingly stunned, has said it has no plans to comment but it must be severely embarrassed. Last year it ignored the criminal conviction of an American bishop, Robert Finn of Kansas, for protecting a priest with child pornography. Finn was left undisciplined in his diocese where he is now fulminating against the National Catholic Reporter for including ''Catholic'' in its title. Consistent priorities!
Meanwhile, although Mahony is humbled in LA, he remains a cardinal with several senior Vatican positions, which no one expects to change. The Pope knows he can't act against Mahony, in the unlikely event that he wants to, without also acting against vast numbers of senior prelates who did exactly the same thing with tacit Vatican approval.
But Gomez has exposed the Vatican's hand-wringing charade about abuse for what it is. Increasingly under scrutiny is the Catholic Church's unhealthy clerical culture, which led it to protect the institution over its children. As the National Catholic Reporter editorialised, ''in their fierce allegiance to that exclusive club at all costs, in their willingness to preserve the facade of holiness and the faithful's high notion of ordination, [the bishops] lost sight of simple human decency and the most fundamental demands of the gospel''.
Now Gomez has broken ranks. His motives may be mixed, his actions tardy, but even if it is only a gesture it is a remarkably powerful and significant one. He has set a stunning example of what accountability might look like.
Barney Zwartz is religion editor.
Comment at theage.com.au/opinion/blog/the-religious-write