Religion

ALEX COHEN, host:

Here's an interesting housing story that has nothing to do with the subprime fallout and everything to do with church sex scandals. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles is evicting some of his tenants who just happened to be nuns.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this story about the closing and probable sale of a beloved convent.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Santa Barbara is famous for its mild-climate, spectacular views, and for being home to many of America's fanciest celebrities. Oprah Winfrey's fundraiser for presidential hopeful Barack Obama put Santa Barbara in the news earlier this month.

It's in the news now because the Sisters of Bethany have to find another home. Their old one is being sold. Part of why people are upset is this rule: The Sisters of Bethany really look like the nuns you remember from childhood.

Unlike most of today's nuns, who wear navy civilian clothes, these sisters still wear the floor-length, padded, and full veils we're so familiar from the old movies.

(Soundbite of song, "Maria")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) How do you solve a problem like Maria? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?

BATES: But instead of the Gothic palace in "The Sound of Music," the Santa Barbara Convent looks like what it is - low-income housing. The three nuns who live here are, not only unusual because they're nuns, they're oddities because they're not sleeping 10 to a room on a mattress-covered floor. That's common for many who live in the section of the city populated by poor people, largely invisible to most of Santa Barbara.

The city has one of the lowest vacancy rates in the country and some of its most expensive real estate. The unskilled workers that are important to the restaurants, hotels and spas of this resort town have to double and triple up to even be able to stay near their jobs. The fact that the real estate command's top dollar here is why the Los Angeles Archdiocese is planning to sell this little house and it's not been good PR for the archdiocese or Cardinal Roger Mahony.

Tod Tamberg, the cardinal's spokesperson, has heard the complaints about the nuns' removal since the convent sale was announced, and he's about had it with being cast as the heavy.

Mr. TOD TAMBERG (Cardinal Roger Mahony's Spokesperson): I think it's been unfair that perception is out there that somehow the archdiocese's put them one step away from homelessness. You know, that's not true at all.

BATES: Tamberg points out the nuns maybe offered another home and there are other sisters of Bethany Convents in Southern California that are possibilities. And, he points out, the nuns are one of several groups that are paying for sins they didn't commit.

Mr. TAMBERG: All of us are having to pay some kind of price, or having, as a community, to give up something to make sure that the victims of sexual abuse are fairly compensated and the healing process for them can continue.

BATES: That defense enrages Ernie Salomon.

Mr. ERNIE SALOMON (Community Activist): The nuns are getting picked on because they're the weakest part of the Catholic link as far as getting hold of property to sell to pay for the pedophilia and the terrible things that these priests did. There was - hasn't been one nun implicated in any of this.

BATES: In his sunny home in the hills over looking the ocean, Salomon, a semi-retired realtor and community activist, says he took up the nuns' cause because it seems so unfair to him. He says someone needed to plead their case to the public and the nuns have been forbidden to speak for themselves. And since their vows are to poverty, chastity and obedience, that's not something they can ignore.

Sister Patricia Wittberg is a sociologist at Indiana University. She's lived in convents for many years and says change is hard for many of the older sisters, especially ones who will become wedded to the neighborhoods they serve. Sister Patricia understands the dilemma for the L.A. Archdiocese but she thinks the way they've handled things is what some of this pain on themselves.

Sister PATRICIA WITTBERG (Sociologist, Indiana University): Bishops, I would presume, have dossiers in Rome and that someone is keeping track of them. And if routinely, there's all this bad press that they get, sooner or later it's possible that someone in the Vatican will say, this doesn't look good.

BATES: Especially when removing the nuns will make the plight of Santa Barbara's working poor more desperate. Social Services people I spoke to in the nun's neighborhood said they're already overwhelmed. Without the nuns, fewer families will be helped as resources are stretched even thinner.

Ernie Salomon says Sister Angela and her colleagues are in the right place for the right reason.

Mr. SALOMON: These nuns are not needed by Oprah, they're not needed in Hope Ranch, Montecito, they're not needed in Beverly Hills - they're needed here.

BATES: And the need will remain after December 31st, the last day of the nuns' lease.

Karen Grisby Bates, NPR News.

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