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Cardinal Sued Over Molestation Cases

Litigation: The civil filings on behalf of two sets of brothers accuse Mahony of running a criminal enterprise.

April 30, 2002|BETH SHUSTER and RICHARD WINTON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony was sued Monday in Los Angeles County Superior Court under a federal racketeering law typically used to dismantle organized crime operations. Two lawsuits were filed on behalf of two sets of brothers who allege they were sexually abused as children by a priest in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

The civil lawsuits allege that Mahony protected abusive priests as head of the archdiocese, a pattern of behavior that constitutes a criminal enterprise.

The lawsuits also allege that the nation's 194 bishops maintain secret files on abusive priests that should be turned over to authorities.

Specifically, the suit alleges, Mahony promised to remove Father Carl Sutphin after learning of abuse allegations in the early 1990s, but waited until this year to force Sutphin into retirement. The lawsuits also allege that Mahony knew of other abusive priests but did not fire them or report them to police.

"The evidence directly establishes that Cardinal Mahony as the head of the church in Los Angeles has engaged in a pattern of concealment, deception, obstruction of judicial process and the protection of pedophile priests and he's been doing that for years," said Jeffrey R. Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., attorney who has filed numerous lawsuits against dioceses across the country since the 1980s. "The RICO [Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organizations] laws are designed to get to the top of criminal organizations if they [church officials] act like mobsters and organized crime, we just have to hold them responsible."

RICO was enacted three decades ago as a tool in the government's war against organized crime and has since been used in civil cases. Under the statute, racketeering is defined as a criminal enterprise that affects interstate commerce and uses illegal means to further its ends. In this case, Anderson alleges, the archdiocese concealed abuses to maintain its reputation and keep getting church donations.

The racketeering lawsuits are the first to name an American cardinal, Anderson said at a news conference Monday. He spoke on the downtown courthouse steps alongside two alleged victims and about a dozen supporters, then walked two blocks to deliver the suit at the new downtown cathedral. The victims are seeking unspecified compensation, as well as policies to prevent priests from abusing children. RICO suits pay triple damages.

Archdiocesan officials would not comment on the lawsuits. Mahony, who was taken to a Burbank hospital Sunday night with blood clots in his lung, is expected to be released in about a week.

Mahony said last week that he forced Sutphin to retire early after reviewing past reports of sexual abuse by priests. Mahony said he required Sutphin to undergo psychological counseling when he first learned of the abuse allegations in the 1990s. He said he received good reports about Sutphin's progress and later allowed him to live at St. Vibiana's Cathedral with him and other priests. Mahony said he thought Sutphin was well supervised there.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs took a different view.

"Hasn't he heard of jail?" Anderson said. "I don't think he did anything for the safety of children."

The two lawsuits, one filed on behalf of twin brothers Andrew and Joseph Cicchillo and the other on behalf of two unidentified victims, allege that letters were sent to archdiocese officials in the 1990s describing the allegations against Sutphin. The Times does not identify sexual abuse victims unless they request that their names be published

Andrew Cicchillo said that he sent a letter to the cardinal in 1991, and that he was told in response that Sutphin would be removed from the priesthood. He said he received money from the archdiocese to pay for counseling. About a year later, Cicchillo's sister wrote to Mahony requesting money for Andrew's continued therapy. That request was apparently denied.

Cicchillo, 46, said he was abused by Sutphin for 10 years, beginning when he was about 6. Sutphin was the associate pastor at St. Rose of Lima Church in Maywood at the time.

Cicchillo said Sutphin would tell him, "I love you like a brother, this is between us, no one has to know."

His twin brother, Joseph, said he was abused by Sutphin over two or three years. He said Sutphin would tell him "you're the chosen one, you're special." When he rebuffed the priest, Joseph Cicchillo said, Sutphin told him he would go to hell if he didn't oblige.

The lawsuits maintain that Mahony has a history of protecting abusive priests, including Father Oliver O'Grady in Stockton. Anderson in 1988 won a $30-million jury verdict on behalf of two brothers allegedly molested by the priest. The verdict was later negotiated to $7 million. The suit alleged that Mahony had transferred the priest from one parish to another after learning of the abuse allegations. But Mahony testified in the trial that he was unaware of certain allegations against O'Grady when he moved him.

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