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Nuns' Evictions Pose Perception Problem for Catholic Church

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 4, 2007

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- In Southern California, where the Roman Catholic Church has agreed to pay victims of pedophile priests $660 million, the archdiocese is ordering nuns out of convents so the buildings can be sold to fund the out-of-court settlement.

Here in Santa Barbara, the sins of the fathers are being visited on the Sisters of Bethany. The three nuns living in a modest building on Nopal Street received an eviction notice last month ordering them to be out by Dec. 31. Earlier "would be acceptable as well," the letter said.

Among those being forced to move is Sister Angela Escalera, 69, who, diabetic and able to get around only with a walker, had hoped to live out her days in the Santa Barbara convent. "This is how the archdiocese is going about getting the money to pay off the victims," said her younger sister, Rosemary Escalera Gutierrez, 64, a former nun in the order.

"She said: 'It's such a heavy price to pay for such an ugly thing,' " said Gutierrez, quoting her sister. " 'Children were being victimized.' " The public storm over the evictions has prolonged an excruciating controversy that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles had hoped to begin putting behind it in July when it agreed to payouts to 508 accusers of 221 priests and other male church employees.

Instead, the new flap has raised the question of how much the church has learned about the crucial business of public perception.

Gutierrez quoted her sister because church officials slapped a gag order on the nuns.

"What's interesting is the church has not learned its lesson. The church thinks Catholics will still follow it without question," said Denise d'Sant Angelo, a member of Save Our Sisters, a local group formed to resist the eviction. "They're still operating under the shroud of secrecy, and secrecy isn't going to be tolerated by Catholics anymore, especially this new generation.

"We're going to kick it up a notch."

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles did not reply to telephone and e-mail messages for this report. A statement posted on its Web site detailed the effort to inform the nuns of their fate and expressed gratitude to the order for its service.

But from Santa Barbara pulpits, a number of priests defended the church. At Holy Cross Parish on Cliff Drive, the Rev. Ludo DeClippel lamented that "these kinds of conflicts within our Church are immediately thrown into the public arena, creating, once more, an hostile public opinion." His remarks appeared in the parish newsletter below an item, tagged "Did you know?" urging parents to teach their children about "bad touching."

DeClippel observed that four other convents were also being shuttered to produce cash for the abuse settlement and that the nuns being evicted "accepted it without protest or public outcry."

"Well, we've been renting," said Sister Rita, in the driveway of the house where she has lived with another sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, in Camarillo, 40 miles to the southeast. Asked if tenant status meant the nuns acquiesced to the move, she demurred and excused herself.

Nuns take a vow of obedience, and the Catholic Church is perhaps the world's farthest-reaching hierarchy. Gutierrez said her birth sister remains implacably opposed to the eviction but must abide by an order of public silence from the mother general superior of the Sisters of Bethany, who was summoned from Guatemala to address the controversy.

"One of the reasons I left is you have no voice," said Gutierrez, who wore the habit for eight years in the 1960s. Now retired from a second career teaching English, she expressed dismay that the Los Angeles archdiocese, after being pilloried for its reluctance to investigate allegations of sexual abuse, appeared to have gone to ground again.

"It's the same mistake all over again: 'Be quiet, be quiet. Don't say anything. Don't rock the boat,' " Gutierrez said.

Another former Bethany sister, Evangelina Diaz, said the defensive posture was also apt to hurt recruiting, seldom easy for the Catholic Church in recent decades.

"Look, a gag rule on three nuns! Holy mackerel!" said Diaz, 74, in the parking lot outside the convent. "They do this to the ones who've been around for 57 years? No wonder they don't get more vocations. Would you want to join?"

By local standards the convent property promises no economic windfall. Oprah Winfrey paid $50 million for an estate in neighboring Montecito. But in the heavily Hispanic, relatively poor section of Santa Barbara that the sisters have served since 1952, comparable two-bedroom homes go for around $700,000.

That is roughly one-tenth of 1 percent of the $660 million the archdiocese agreed to pay accusers. Among them are former altar boys who described being molested by the late Rev. Matthew Kelly at Our Lady of Guadalupe, the church adjacent to the convent.

"These nuns are precious to us, but there are priests living in fabulous-looking little houses, by themselves," Diaz said. "You don't see them getting kicked out."

In fact the handsome residence of the Santa Barbara bishop -- once a convent -- remains safe behind seven palms on a corner lot. The building is the largest in a neighborhood where homes have been fetching $2 million.

But to local resident Sally Sanchez, the fate of the nuns pivots on neither money nor gender but rather on the question of equity.

"We had a lot of solid priests," Sanchez said. "But the sisters are getting the short end of the shaft."

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