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D.A. Demands Mahony Turn Over Documents on Abuse

May 17, 2002 | The Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley on Thursday threatened Cardinal Roger M. Mahony with a grand jury investigation unless the archdiocese surrenders all documents related to the alleged sexual abuse of children.

Cooley told Mahony it was no longer acceptable to provide only verbal information to law enforcement agencies, as he said the Los Angeles Archdiocese has done until now. Without access to the archdiocese's full written documentation on allegations, Cooley said, Los Angeles police and sheriff's deputies are hampered in their investigations.

More than 30 priests are under investigation for alleged sexual abuse of minors. Cooley's warning was the toughest yet from law enforcement after nearly three months of guarded responses by the archdiocese. The church has been asked by prosecutors and the news media for information about priests whose conduct with children may have warranted criminal investigation.

The district attorney acted Thursday in response to The Times' disclosure that Mahony had knowingly transferred an abusive Los Angeles priest from parish to parish, secretly settled a lawsuit against him and then arranged for him to quietly retire two years ago.

"Nothing short of a full accounting with written documentation is acceptable," Cooley said in a letter to Mahony. "If it is not forthcoming, the grand jury will be utilized to obtain it."

The archdiocese said in a statement that it has been cooperating with all law enforcement agencies.

"We look forward to resolving any misunderstanding that may exist between us, and to continuing our cordial and productive relationship," the statement said.

The disclosure of Mahony's conduct in the case of Father Michael Stephen Baker provoked outrage and disappointment among some laity on Thursday. Mahony, anticipating The Times' story, faxed a letter of apology Tuesday to the archdiocese's 1,200 priests.

"If he knowingly sent an abusive priest back into ministry with children, that's presumptive evidence that he is incompetent as a bishop and should resign," said David Quackenbush, a professor at Thomas Aquinas College, a Catholic liberal arts college in Santa Paula. "If a priest killed a 10-year-old, he wouldn't be ministering to children again. [Sex abuse] is attempted spiritual murder."

John Connolly, a theologian at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, said the cardinal's actions in the Baker case "surprised and disappointed" him because he had thought Mahony had been aggressively dealing with sexual abuse allegations in the church. He also said Mahony should have apologized not only to "my brother priests," as the cardinal's letter was addressed, but to the laity as well.

"All of this is a reflection of the fact that [church officials] are still caught in this hiding thing," Connolly said. "We still have a long way to go in dealing with this openly."

But Connolly, a liberal theologian, said he would oppose calls for Mahony's resignation because he is one of the few moderate cardinals left in the American church. The Roman Catholic Church's response to the molestation scandal is expected to be tested in June, when the nation's bishops meet in Dallas to fashion new guidelines to dismiss abusive priests. If Mahony were to resign, Connolly said, the conservative Pope John Paul II would almost certainly appoint someone "more reactionary."

Several priests, however, said they were gratified that Mahony had accepted responsibility for his actions in the Baker case and openly apologized. Some also said the cardinal's actions should be understood in the context of the times.

When Baker confessed his deeds in 1986, said Father Bob Curtis, a semi-retired Los Angeles priest, most dioceses believed that church problems should be handled quietly "within the family" to avoid shocking the faithful, who expected their priests to be icons of perfection. Most also believed that sexual abuse could be treated through counseling, Curtis and others said--a perception that has been challenged by revelations across the nation that priests treated for abuse had continued to molest other children.

"I would say the archbishop was operating under the best information at the time," said Father Vicente Lopez of St. Raphael Church in Los Angeles. "Now, with painful hindsight, we recognize [Baker's treatment] was inappropriate."

But victims' groups rejected the argument that Mahony didn't know any better at the time, because he had kept silent about Baker's conduct until this week.

"The old excuse, 'Back then we just didn't know any better,' won't wash in this instance," said David Clohessy of St. Louis, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

Clohessy said Mahony had engaged in "precisely the same type of denial and cover-up" as Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, whose lenient treatment of priests accused of molestation sparked the current church scandal earlier this year.

Cooley said his office had decided last week to demand greater cooperation from the archdiocese, but he said it was the story in Thursday's Times that prompted him to send the letter. The article reported that Baker told Mahony in 1986 that he had molested young boys, but that the cardinal reassigned him to parishes, where Baker allegedly continued his sexual abuse of minors for more than a decade.

In 2000, Mahony approved a $1.3-million payment to two men who said they had been abused by Baker from 1984 to 1999. The cardinal arranged for the priest to quietly retire from the archdiocese the same year that settlement was approved.

Last month, Mahony and the archdiocese were sued under a federal racketeering law, alleging that Mahony protected abusive priests as head of the archdiocese, a pattern of behavior the suit says constitutes a criminal enterprise.

As sex abuse scandals have swept the Roman Catholic Church nationwide, prosecutors in Suffolk County, N.Y., and Cincinnati have impaneled grand juries. Others have made similar demands for church documents. Victims' rights groups and attorneys representing alleged victims say that each diocese maintains a considerable file on each priest on its rolls.

In a March e-mail to one of his lawyers, Mahony expressed concern about being called in front of a grand jury after a church attorney balked at turning over to police the names of three priests.

"If we don't, today, 'consult' with the [LAPD] about those 3 names, I can guarantee you that I will get hauled into a Grand Jury proceeding and I will be forced to give all the names, etc.," the cardinal wrote.

Cooley said he already has sent Mahony a series of letters urging him to provide information on reports of child molestation to police. He said Mahony replied that such information had been provided.

Officials at the LAPD and other law enforcement agencies have said publicly that the archdiocese has been cooperating with investigators and has provided detectives with the names of priests recently removed from the ministry. The archdiocese has also provided information from its hotline on sexual abuse to the LAPD's Sexual Exploited Child Unit.

Los Angeles Police Cmdr. Gary Brennan said investigators have received some written documentation from the archdiocese about ongoing investigations.

"It is anticipated we will receive more documents. We have an ongoing working relationship. Whether we have received everything we're suppose to remains to be seen," Brennan said.

But some law enforcement sources say the information supplied by the archdiocese has been limited. "They make the tobacco boys look like choirboys," said one officer, who compared the archdiocese's reluctance to hand over files to that of tobacco company executives accused of covering up the dangers of smoking cigarettes.

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