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A Trail of Secrecy and Deception

August 22, 2001|STEVE LOPEZ

You might say this has not been a great week for the Catholic Church in Southern California.

First we had the $5.2-million settlement of a sex scandal involving an Orange County priest and several young males, which brings to mind two familiar questions:

What did church leaders know, and when did they know it?

Hard to say. Especially since, by sheer coincidence, I'm sure, the church decided to settle the case just before Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Los Angeles Archdiocese was to be deposed. While searching for answers, I came across a letter dated Aug. 14 from a lawyer representing the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

The letter was sent to a former priest and expert witness in the Orange County case, taking him to task for misstating the number of sexual misconduct cases in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

In fact, attorney John P. McNicholas wrote, "There were approximately 50 cases of claimed sexual misbehavior in the archdiocese over the past five years. Of these cases, only six involved minors. Two of the six were current; four were adults complaining of past misconduct."

What a relief.

The L.A. Archdiocese is only averaging 10 allegations of sexual misconduct a year.

And "only six" of the 50 involve minors.

Who knows? Maybe six allegations of claimed sexual misbehavior involving minors is a pretty good five-year run for the archdiocese.

If so, I can understand why Cardinal Mahony might have wanted to avoid answering questions. But I'm going to ask them anyway.

What exactly are the allegations McNicholas is referring to, who are the accused, and is everything being done to make sure more minors are not assaulted?

Let me be even more blunt.

Are more children being molested as we speak?

I'd like to share the answers with you, but McNicholas is out of the country, and the archdiocese did not return my call. I think I must be on some kind of list over there.

The reason I wonder if church officials are doing everything in their power to prevent more abuse is because that's not exactly what happened in Orange County.

Diocese officials say it wasn't until 1993 that they were aware of sex allegations against Msgr. Michael A. Harris, former principal of Mater Dei High in Santa Ana and Santa Margarita High in southern Orange County.

But that's utterly impossible, says attorney Katherine Freberg, who represented Ryan DiMaria in the $5.2-million case. Freberg says the church knew Harris was treated in 1972 for "sexual conflicts," and she says it knew about a molestation charge in 1980.

The 1980 case was allegedly reported to a priest named G. Patrick Ziemann, who later was promoted to bishop of Santa Rosa. Ziemann ended up resigning after a scandal involving his affair with another priest.

It's a tangled web, isn't it?

"Our information is that Cardinal Mahony and Bishop Ziemann were friends," says Freberg, who claims Mahony's lawyers "fought tooth and nail" to prevent having Mahony deposed. "Beyond that, I'm not going to speculate" as to what Mahony might have known about allegations against Harris, Freberg says.

In 1993, a former student of Harris died of AIDS. On his deathbed, he told his mother he had been molested by Harris back in the 1970s. But even after she notified the diocese, it took six months before Harris stepped down as principal of Santa Margarita and was sent away to a clinic in Maryland for a psychiatric evaluation.

Within days after doctors made the startling diagnosis that Harris seemed to be attracted to adolescent boys, a Diocese of Orange spokesman painted a different picture for the public, calling him "an icon to the priesthood."

Harris still maintains his innocence. But he became too much of a PR problem for the diocese, which now expresses "grave doubts" about his innocence and intends to have him defrocked.

"If Mahony were the CEO of an equally large corporation, he'd have been asked to resign for his handling of this case," says A.W. Richard Sipe, the former priest who received the letter in which the diocese admitted to 50 claims of sexual misbehavior.

Sipe is the author of "Bless Me Father for I Have Sinned," an examination of sex and cover-up in the priesthood. In the Orange County case, he helped draft a new diocesan policy on sex abuse allegations, and the church also agreed to create an assistance program for youths who claim they've been molested.

But will it make a difference?

Sipe is half-optimistic, half-realistic. Nationally, he says, the church is like the tobacco industry. "A trail of secrecy and deception" reaches into the upper echelons, and the general strategy is "massive denial" until the truth is as plain as the cross above the altar.

But by then even good priests are tainted by the stain of yet another scandal in the church, the victims are forced to carry the burden of the ultimate betrayal, and you wonder how the men in robes can sleep at night.

Steve Lopez can be reached at steve.lopez@latimes.com

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