One-year-old Autumn Johnson was in her crib in Compton when a bullet probably meant for her 24-year-old daddy, according to Los Angeles County Sheriff’s officials, tore through her converted-garage home and into her head. “Minnie,” who weighted five pounds at birth, was taken to St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood in a patrol car, where she was declared dead. Darrell Johnson admitted he belonged to a street gang.
The toddler’s death on Feb. 9 made the front page of The Los Angeles Times’ California section the next day and was the paper’s three-column cover story Feb. 11. It also was the lead piece on local TV stations. But, like other so-called “gang-related” murders in L.A., it quickly faded from the airways and print publications.
Bishop David G. O’Connell, who pastored four inner-city parishes in South Los Angeles for 27 years, says Autumn’s killing is just the latest reminder of the breakdown in society’s bedrock norms and values.
“What comes to mind is that more and more I’m seeing that the children are suffering terribly in our society,” he told The Tidings. “And it seems like, because of the breakdown in our society and our families, it’s the children who are taking the brunt of the suffering.
“So many priests would identify with this — that it’s getting heartbreaking to hear confessions of children. Because they talk about the violence in their homes and neighborhoods and schools, about addiction of their parents, about when dad goes and has another wife and the mom feels betrayed. And when dad has other children, they feel betrayed.
“These children are reaping a terrible harvest of suffering in this society,” he stressed. “We as adults have failed to create a society where children can grow up with the joy and the peace and the love and protection of the guidance and leadership that they need.”
Last September the Irish-born priest was ordained bishop of the San Gabriel Pastoral Region. Before that he served as pastor of St. Frances X. Cabrini, Ascension, St. Eugene and St. Michael parishes in Los Angeles. So the prelate is no stranger to urban violence. One early morning in 1988 he went outside to unlock the parking lot gate at St. Frances X. Cabrini. Across the street in the Winchell Donuts’ lot was a car with two slumped dead bodies, a couple yards from the parochial school.
“We live in a society where the adults are more and more concerned about ourselves and our needs and rights and privileges, and the children are suffering more and more,” the bishop pointed out. “And the children, completely innocent like this child, are always the victims.
“There’s so much suffering, and the children are taking the brunt of it. This is just an example of it. The child suffers because of the breakdown of family and society.”
Bishop O’Connell says there’s no easy fix to change society’s new “Me Generation” mindset. But he believes getting kids into Catholic schools can really help. At St. Michael’s there was “Gospel Monday,” where students learned how to talk to Jesus through centering prayer meditation. And parents were helped to be hands-on moms and dads.
“I figured if we don’t get them by the time they’re in junior high, they’re going to already start acting out and start self-medicating with marijuana or drinking or medication adults put them on,” he said. “Something to cure the pain. So we really have failed them as adults.
“We have to find some way in our Catholic faith to change that and to help children be released from their pain. And this comes from Jesus Christ himself. In a Catholic school, children can not only feel nourished, but also loved.”