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Orange County

Catholics Grapple With Scandal

Religion: Some priests are angry at the media. Orange County cleric facing accusation gives thanks for support.

April 08, 2002|DAVID PIERSON, CHRISTINE HANLEY and GEOFFREY MOHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Southland Roman Catholics wrestled with conflicting feelings about the sexual-abuse scandal rocking their church, while several priests used their pulpit Sunday to direct harsh words at the media for its reporting on the allegations.

In the first congregational gatherings since an accusation against Cardinal Roger M. Mahony surfaced Friday, some of the homilies tailored around the story of "Doubting Thomas" were laced with skepticism on the means and motives of those who revealed the details of the allegation.

Two priests implied that the media had stolen a series of internal church e-mails, which contained a Fresno woman's unproved allegation of abuse by Mahony 32 years ago, as well as the prelate's ruminations on what he called his archdiocese's "huge mistake" for not promptly revealing to authorities the names of priests accused of molesting minors.

Eight priests had been fired in February, but as recently as March 27, the hierarchy had not provided authorities with full identification of three of the accused.

Over the last year, the Diocese of Orange has dismissed two accused priests and paid nearly $6.5 million in settlements to sexual molestation victims.

During the two masses he celebrated at St. John Vianney Chapel on Balboa Island, Msgr. Lawrence J. Baird, who was accused of making a sexual advance toward a female parishioner, frequently alluded to the scandal, comparing it to a "crisis in faith" similar to the stubborn doubtfulness of St. Thomas.

Baird thanked the congregation for supportive e-mails, phone calls and letters, but did not address the accusations made against him and later refused to comment further. "The statement I made at the press conference earlier this week is the only comment I'm making," Baird said between services.

Sunday morning's sermons reflected the discomfort, frustration and, at times, indignation about the intense news media coverage of the allegations against Southern California church officials.

"The church is being persecuted by the media," the Rev. Msgr. Padraic Loftus of St. Mel Parish in Woodland Hills told about 300 parishioners. "They didn't let up during Holy Week .... Our cardinal is viciously attacked and publicly humiliated. One must ask why? .... Is it a deep-seated anti-Catholic attitude? Is it prejudice? Is it even hatred?"

Loftus asked the congregants to deal with the issue through "prayer, education, justice, healing, forgiveness and compassion."

"It's not only the abused who suffer," Loftus said. "Our cardinal is also suffering greatly. Priests who have dedicated their whole lives are suffering. All Catholics are suffering because the church is the body of Christ."

Parishioners gave Loftus mixed reviews. "I was hoping he [Loftus] would take full responsibility before he blamed others," said Wayne Bradshaw of Woodland Hills, who has been attending St. Mel's with his wife and young daughter for three years. "To point it at the media is a little shaky."

Jack Trabold, a Woodland Hills resident and 23-year St. Mel's parishioner, dismissed the Fresno woman's allegations that Mahony molested her 32 years ago, and praised the cleric's handling of the larger scandal. "Mahony is doing a good job," Trabold said. "It's a tough spot to be in."

Trabold's comments on the newest allegations were echoed Sunday by congregants from Camarillo to Balboa Island. The woman who made the charges told The Times that she suffered from schizophrenia, and her accounts of the alleged incident were short on detail.

A priest who first heard the woman's allegations told the Associated Press on Sunday he believes the claim is false.

"She claimed that happened with 40 different youths watching," said Msgr. John Esquivel after leading mass at St. John's Cathedral in Fresno. "There's no way that is going to happen in front of all those people. I don't believe the allegations are true."

Esquivel could not be reached for comment.

At Eagle Rock's St. Dominic Church, vicar Rev. Christopher Terry accused the media of "yellow journalism" for its treatment of the accusations against the cardinal, according to a parishioner. The e-mails that revealed the Mahony allegation were stolen, he added, though he did not specify by whom, the parishioner reported.

At Padre Serra Catholic Church in Camarillo, a visiting priest, who briefly referred to the scandal during his sermon, afterward berated media outlets for publicizing the Mahony e-mails, which were obtained by radio station KFI, and passed on to the Los Angeles Times. The archdiocese took The Times to court late Thursday in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent their publication.

"I'm really mad at the L.A. Times," said the priest, who requested anonymity. "Those e-mails are stolen property. To take something that is protected under attorney-client privilege is wrong."

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