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Mahony's 'Big Problem' Is Largely of His Own Making

May 17, 2002 | The Los Angeles Times He didn't call the police.

He didn't warn parishioners.

He didn't check up on the molester who had confessed to him in 1986. That left the offending priest free to prey on more children for another 14 years. I don't know whether to ask for a grand jury investigation of Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony or run to the nearest church and light a candle for him.

Mahony, who has held himself up as a crusader against sexual abuse by priests, is not the reformer he'd have you believe. The latest proof is the case of Father Michael Baker, as detailed by Glenn F. Bunting and other colleagues in Thursday's Times.

For months now, those of us who've been covering the scandal in the Roman Catholic Church have been aware of Father Baker. We knew about Mahony's attorneys writing a $1.3-million check in 2000 to quietly settle a claim by two brothers. They say Baker molested them for 13 years after the priest confessed his compulsion to Mahony.

But Mahony isn't an easy man to get answers out of, unless they're the ones he wants you to hear. Here's what I'm talking about.

After I'd hammered him in print for weeks, the cardinal stunned me with an e-mail invitation for a personal tour of the new $200-million downtown cathedral. It was my first clue he'd missed his true calling. He should have gone into PR.

Fine, I replied. The sooner the better, because I've got some questions I'd like to ask. But after several cordial exchanges, Mahony laid down the 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not ask questions about anything but the cathedral.

Was he kidding? He's sitting on top of a festering scandal, I've got two or three dozen queries about what he knew and when, and he thinks I'm going to come by to marvel at the Rog Mahal?

In the end, he canceled my tour, and any hope of resurrecting it faded soon thereafter. Mahony couldn't have been eager to see me after I dug up the details on the way he handled a confessed molester back when Mahony was bishop in Stockton. The priest molested again and again after Mahony moved him around the diocese in the 1980s. Sound familiar?

But if I couldn't get to Mahony, my colleague Beth Shuster did. Last month she asked him whether Father Baker had confessed his abuse of minors.

No recollection of it, Mahony said.

Later, he told Shuster he thought another church official might have met with Baker.

Then, this Tuesday, he gave a third version. In a letter to diocesan priests, he admitted that in 1986, "Baker disclosed to me that he had problems in the past of acting out sexually with two minors."

Sounds like a case of repressed memory. But what caused the epiphany?

"It's quite likely that very soon the public media will highlight the case," Mahony wrote to his priests. In the letter, he said Baker was removed from the ministry after the allegations in 2000.

Indeed he was. But not even then did Mahony call police. He wrote a $1.3-million check instead.

Then, as the scandal grew and Mahony promised everyone he had handed the names of all known molesters to police, internal memos revealed the cardinal's dilemma.

Should he tell police about Baker, even though it would reflect badly on him and the diocese? Or should he keep it quiet and risk being dragged before a grand jury and, in his own words, get hit with "charges of cover-up, concealing criminals etc. etc."

His worst nightmare might actually now come true. L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley apparently woke from his nap long enough to see that The Times was doing his job for him and ordered the cardinal to either open up personnel files or answer to a grand jury.

Either option might prove uncomfortable for Mahony, who just a few weeks ago was wagging a finger at Boston Cardinal Bernard Law. If Mahony were ever guilty of gross negligence like that, he promised, he'd have trouble walking down a church aisle.

But this story has been about hypocrisy and betrayal from Day One.

"Our biggest problem" in dealing with Baker, Mahony told The Times, "was that ... he wasn't found guilty of a criminal act. That's a big problem."

No it isn't. When a priest confesses to molesting children, there are three things to do.

First, call the police. Second, check on the victims. Third, defrock the priest.

To do anything less is a morally corrupt act of self-preservation, an insult to victims and a disservice to countless honorable priests.

Why can everyone but church leaders see the obvious?

(Clarification: In Wednesday's column I said Gov. Davis had cut education to balance the budget, but he actually just delayed a $1.7-billion expenditure by one year).

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