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TURMOIL IN THE CHURCH

Dioceses' Policies Reflect Settlement

April 28, 2002|WILLIAM LOBDELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony can brag that his archdiocese has implemented the toughest rules in the nation against priests who molest children. But that boast was made possible only because one of the church's stubborn accusers insisted last December that the new policy be part of his record $5.2-million settlement.

Last week in Rome, America's cardinals and Vatican officials grappled with exactly how unforgiving a sexual abuse policy should be: Should they adopt a "zero-tolerance" stance for priests with a decades-old molestation incident? They ended their two-day conference by issuing only a generally worded statement on sexual abuse, leaving the most difficult decisions to the nation's bishops when they meet in June.

The Los Angeles archdiocese settled those matters months ago. Mahony, along with Bishop of Orange Tod D. Brown, enacted a new set of rules, including a "one-strike" provision that has triggered the recent dismissal of at least a dozen priests in both dioceses. Some of those priests had a single incident of misbehavior in their distant past.

The new rules also include an independent advocate who is not a priest or diocesan employee for alleged victims, an 800 number for anonymous complaints and a mandatory program on abuse prevention at parochial schools.

In all, 11 changes were made to the dioceses' policies in December as part of a settlement with abuse victim Ryan DiMaria. The settlement imposed a state-of-the-art sexual-abuse policy on Mahony and Brown a full month before the church's sex scandal broke in Boston.

The beefed-up rules, whose implementation was overseen by Orange County Superior Court Judge James P. Gray, gave the prelates the look of prophets.

Mahony and Brown rarely refer to the legal settlement that brought about the new rules, though they frequently have highlighted the policy with pride in media reports, letters to parishioners and on Web sites.

For instance, in March, the Los Angeles archdiocese distributed to parishioners a brochure called "Respecting the Boundaries: Keeping Ministerial Relationships Healthy and Holy." Archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg said at the time that the cardinal decided to hand out the information because of the surge of attention to priest sex scandals that erupted in January with the criminal trial of a Boston cleric accused of molesting 130 children.

"Cardinal Mahony thought ... it was important for him to reiterate to the Catholic faithful that we have comprehensive policies on sex abuse, that we follow them carefully and review them regularly," Tamberg said.

The informational campaign was one of the measures imposed by the settlement.

"Cardinal Mahony is giving this perception that he did this on his own," said Katherine K. Freberg, one of DiMaria's attorneys.

Mahony flatly denied Friday that he may have been forced into the new policies by lawsuits, saying that he had been developing and implementing the procedures well before the Dec. 4 settlement.

Some Measures Already in Place

Maria Schinderle, director of human resources for the Orange diocese, said the settlement prompted some changes, but said it was unfair to say that the settlement was responsible for 11 innovations in the way the church handled molestation allegations. She said some of the measures already were in place and others were on the drawing board.

"That's why it didn't take long to implement it," she said.

DiMaria's attorneys cite the timing: After a four-year legal battle, the dioceses agreed to the changes only weeks before a potentially costly and embarrassing jury trial.

DiMaria, a recent law school graduate, claimed that he had been abused as a teenager by the principal at his Catholic high school. Msgr. Michael Harris, a popular Orange County clergyman who was nicknamed "Father Hollywood," has denied the charges.

Four other alleged victims, not parties to DiMaria's lawsuit, also accused Harris of similar misconduct. The Los Angeles archdiocese was named in the suit because DiMaria contended that the archdiocese knew of another victim's allegations against Harris, dating back to the 1970s, but did nothing about them. The archdiocese has denied prior knowledge.

DiMaria, now in his late 20s, has declined to give media interviews since the settlement, but his attorneys said his primary goal in suing the dioceses was to fix a broken system that protected priests and scorned victims like himself.

Though DiMaria received the highest known settlement for a single U.S. victim of priest abuse, "the truth is, our client took less money to get this done" by electing not to go to trial, where changes in church policy would not have been at issue, said John Manly, DiMaria's other attorney.

Last August, Judge Gray called a settlement conference where he told both parties that the revelations that had surfaced during the lawsuit had sickened him. He said they "made my skin crawl" and left him "crying inside."

"This case will live with me as long as I'm thinking and breathing," he said later in court.

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