For almost the last 20 years, a handful of men and women — among them attorneys, mental health professionals, a couple of priests, a woman religious, even a pediatrician — have met regularly to provide a service Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez couldn’t do his job without.
Known as the Clergy Misconduct Oversight Board (CMOB), the independent board has reviewed every case of suspected sexual impropriety committed by priests and deacons in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles since 2002. Some are survivors of sexual abuse by clergy themselves.
Their task: to carefully evaluate every accusation before advising the archbishop on what actions should be taken, whether related to policy or outreach to those affected by abuse.
As the global Catholic Church deals with a reawakening sexual abuse crisis, the role of such boards is back in the spotlight, especially in the U.S. Church, which is widely recognized as a leader in promoting anti-abuse mechanisms that provide independent lay oversight of abuse cases.
Here in Los Angeles, such a board has existed since 1994, well before the U.S. bishops mandated the creation of such a board in every American diocese following the 2002 abuse crisis.
Since its initial start as the Sexual Abuse Advisory Board (SAAB) and as CMOB since 2002, the group has relied on independent investigators — among them retired FBI special agents — to investigate allegations of abuse committed against both adults and minors long before doing so was the national standard for Catholic dioceses.
The investigators report their findings to the board, which in turn deliberates on the claims’ credibility and how the archdiocese should proceed.
Among those who watch CMOB work from a seat in the room for those meetings is Heather Banis, Ph.D., who in 2016 took over as coordinator of the Victim Assistance Ministry for the archdiocese. She is not a member of the board, but presents cases to it with an overview of allegations, a summary of what has been reported and what counseling has been offered.
“To me, as a psychologist, the board is comprised of members whose diverse areas of expertise converge to create a very appropriate and sensitive interdisciplinary response to the serious matters of sexual misconduct,” said Banis.
“These people are volunteers and listen to detailed reports of the allegations and the findings of the investigation. I see in the board’s efforts a tenacity and perseverance to understand the truth of what happened as best they possibly can and to make a fair and just recommendation to the archbishop. I believe the process is healthy and has integrity.”
For Kathy Moret, her time on CMOB for the last decade is just one of the roles she considers part of her longtime ministry in Catholic education.
As a parishioner at Holy Family Church in South Pasadena, Moret was asked to consider serving on CMOB by the late Msgr. Royale Vadakin, who then served as vicar general for the archdiocese but who had known her since she was in parish school in Alhambra, where he was once the associate pastor.
She recalled hesitating at first, but said she trusted in the priest’s faith that she would bring fair-mindedness and compassion from her background on boards such as the Loyola Marymount University’s School of Education, and her work in politics.
“For the first couple of years, I did a lot of listening and learning,” said Moret, reflecting on the work of the board. “We have a mutual respect for everyone at the table. We are one. I think it’s a cohesive board and we’re all on the same page.”
The matters discussed in the meetings do not leave the room, Moret said. Some on the board don’t even share with friends that they participate on CMOB.
“If the subject comes up, I will do my best to explain, but it can seem complicated,” she said. “I am proud of this work. I would really just want people to know that we are not here to protect clergy. We’re laypeople doing the best we can to make the Church a place we are all proud of and which is sacred and safe for our children.
“There are many times at dinner I will tell my husband that I feel really good about what we did that day as a board. Again, I look at it as a ministry. It’s not necessarily the easy job. I have faith in myself that I am someone who is fair and compassionate and loving in my ministry.”
Since CMOB only gives recommendations to the archbishop about what steps to take next, Moret said the board’s focus has to do the best it can at processing information and not trying to act as a decision-maker.
“When there are cases involving children, I’m not sure there will ever be 100% justice,” said Moret. “That’s really up to God. But as far as what our temporal powers are and given the options we can take for justice, I think and hope we might bring some peace.”
At times, the most important voice in CMOB’s deliberations is that of a victim-survivor of abuse.
Dolores (last name withheld) has been on the board with Moret for the last decade. More than a victim-survivor, Dolores comes from a life journey that took her in many different directions before finding a path to healing.
“At the essence of our faith is compassion, and it grieves me that some people seek retribution,” said Dolores. “It’s difficult enough to live a Christian life in our world and with one of our most basic human instincts to seek revenge or retribution.
“There’s no place for that on the board; there is much more we are called to be and do. What my serving in the board meetings did was open up a more compassionate view for me, not only for the people who are violated but for the perpetrators as well.”
Dolores pointed out that the board takes a particularly whole-minded approach in responding not just for the victims and their healing process, but for assessing the principal offenders.
“A lot of people are hurting on both sides, and I wanted to be of service in helping move forward on the topic,” she said. “I think I’m helping find resolution and some sort of just treatment for the perpetrator, whether that’s removal or therapy or supervised activities, so the issues that were caused by that person would no longer affect the Church in the way it did before the case was brought to the board.
“Ultimately, we live in a land where justice is supposed to be dispensed by law. I only speak for myself, but I see the change that’s been brought about within the Church because of this board, and others like it, as a just way to approach the predicament.”
Adding that she understands some things can’t be resolved except through extreme measures, “I guess that speaks to helping out in some way and, if that’s the outcome for that person, that also helps society and the Church. I don’t think I carry any untoward feelings with me when each meeting concludes as I remain centered within myself and God,” Dolores said.
“As I reflect on the board’s participation and whatever decisions have been made, I know we’ve made the best recommendations collectively.”