By Laurie Goodstein (New York Times)
January 22, 2013
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, for more than 25 years the savvy shepherd of the Roman Catholic Church in Los Angeles, retired nearly two years ago to a renovated yellow house behind his childhood parish, pledging to stay in the spotlight by continuing to fight for the rights of immigrants.
But the cardinal now finds himself in a most unwelcome spotlight, one that he sought for years to avoid. Internal church personnel files released this week as part of a civil court case reveal that he and his top adviser knowingly shielded priests accused of child sexual abuse from law enforcement. In one letter, the cardinal ordered a clergyman to stay in New Mexico, where he had been sent for treatment, to avoid the possibility of being reported to the police in California.
Lawyers for the Los Angeles Archdiocese fought for years to prevent the release of the files, but a demand for transparency was a primary goal of the more than 500 victims of clergy abuse who signed a record settlement for $660 million with the archdiocese in July 2007. When a judge ordered the files to be made public despite the church’s objections, the archdiocese fought to be allowed to redact names and identifying details. But it recently lost that battle and now awaits an imminent cascade of 30,000 more documents that could further tarnish Cardinal Mahony’s legacy.
“He played a very prominent role as social and spiritual leader,” said William Deverell, the director of the Huntington-University of Southern California Institute on California and the West. “He’s a native, knows greater Los Angeles exceedingly well and presided over an already globally changed city, leading it into the next phase. He earned a great deal of ecumenical trust and leadership, which is now going to be re-examined.”
In his long tenure in the nation’s largest archdiocese, Cardinal Mahony, now 76, distinguished himself as a keen politician in both civic and church circles. He was an early champion of Hispanic immigrants, marching with César Chávez, the founder of the United Farm Workers of America, and is beloved by many Hispanics, who make up 70 percent of the four million Catholics in the archdiocese.
Cardinal Mahony, who was archbishop from 1985 until 2011, cultivated friendships with politicians like former Mayor Richard J. Riordan, and raised nearly $200 million to build the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, a postmodern landmark downtown. In an increasingly conservative Catholic Church, he was known as one of the last relatively progressive prelates, embracing the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and encouraging increased participation of women and laypeople. He hosted what has become the largest annual gathering of Catholics in ministry, the Religious Education Congress.
But his tenure was shadowed by the abuse scandal. In 2003, the California Legislature temporarily lifted the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse cases for one year, allowing new lawsuits to be filed. The legislation ultimately led to the settlement with more than 500 victims in 2007.
In 2009, the Los Angeles Archdiocese became the first in the nation to be the subject of a federal investigation into the handling of clergy sexual abuse. The United States attorney, Thomas P. O’Brien, convened a grand jury, which was reported at the time to include an investigation into the role of Cardinal Mahony and his chief lieutenants in protecting accused abusers. No charges were ever brought.
The cardinal weathered the growing scandal because he retained the loyalty of Hispanic parishioners and his priests, unlike in Boston and Philadelphia, where clerics who lost confidence in their cardinals sought their ouster, said Rocco Palmo, editor of the Web site Whispers in the Loggia, which follows news of the Catholic hierarchy.
“The scandals have not had the same kind of impact among Hispanic Catholics, and that’s where Mahony’s base had been from the beginning of his ministry,” Mr. Palmo said.
It is unclear whether the newly released documents will result in criminal prosecution. The cases may be beyond the statute of limitations. The United States attorney’s office declined to comment on Tuesday, and Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles district attorney, said in a statement that the office would “review and evaluate all documents as they become available to us.”
Anthony DeMarco, the lawyer for the plaintiff whose civil case led to the release of the documents on Monday, said the files show that Cardinal Mahony was corresponding regularly with his lieutenants about priests accused of sexually abusing minors.
“Every day, just about, he was dealing with this, and from the moment he arrived in Los Angeles, he’s reading about this, he’s taking action, he’s saying, ‘Let’s send them out of state and out of the country,’ ” Mr. DeMarco said.
The documents shed light on the case of Msgr. Peter Garcia, accused of molesting as many as 20 boys, one of whom he is said to have tied up and raped. A letter from Cardinal Mahony reveals that he urged Monsignor Garcia to stay at a treatment center in New Mexico instead of returning to California.
The cardinal wrote to the treatment center’s director in 1986, “I believe that if Monsignor Garcia were to reappear here within the archdiocese, we might very well have some type of legal action filed in both the criminal and civil sectors.”
Monsignor Garcia wrote that he had met with then-Archbishop Mahony, who he said told him to be “very low key” and assured him that “no one was looking at him for any criminal action.”
J. Michael Hennigan, a lawyer representing the archdiocese, said in an interview that “the policy in those days was to leave reports to law enforcement to the families.”
“Not surprisingly,” he said, “most families did not want their children to be key witnesses in criminal prosecutions. They wanted their children to be able to live their lives without this mark on them.”
In a statement released on Monday, Cardinal Mahony said he began taking steps to improve the church’s response to abuse victims in 1987, but it was not until 2006 and 2007, when he met personally with more than 90 victims, that he fully understood the “full and lasting impact these horrible acts would have” on their lives. He concluded, “I am sorry.”
Cardinal Mahony was succeeded by Archbishop José H. Gomez. Cardinal Mahony lives behind St. Charles Borromeo Church in North Hollywood in a modest one-story house protected by a security gate. Parishioners said he occasionally celebrated Mass at the church. A neighbor, Elizabeth Johnson, who occasionally attends Mass there, said he “really keeps a low profile.”
Ian Lovett and Jennifer Medina contributed reporting from Los Angeles.