Faced with allegations that parish priests had sexually abused minors, the Los Angeles Archdiocese under Cardinal Roger M. Mahony for many years withheld information from police and allowed clerics facing prosecution to flee to foreign countries, internal records and interviews show.
At the same time, Mahony has been more aggressive than many U.S. bishops in dismissing members of the clergy. According to newly obtained information, the cardinal quietly removed 17 priests from ministry during the last decade who had either admitted or had been credibly accused of molesting minors.
In recent months, as the Roman Catholic Church has struggled to contain the clergy sex abuse scandal, Mahony has taken a stance as an outspoken reformer on a mission to oust all sex offenders from the priesthood.
But an examination of sexual abuse cases during his tenure in Los Angeles since 1985 shows that the archdiocese also worked to keep a growing problem from the eyes of the public and the hands of the law. The Times examination found:
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 20, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 100 words Type of Material: Correction
Los Angeles Archdiocese--An asterisk in a chart published in Sunday's Section A should have indicated that the Los Angeles Archdiocese and the Diocese of Orange shared the cost of a $1.2-million settlement involving alleged sexual misconduct by Father John Lenihan, not Father Michael S. Baker. The Los Angeles Archdiocese and Baker shared the cost of a $1.3-million settlement involving accusations against him.
* Five parish priests fled the country and one disappeared after learning of complaints that they had sexually abused underage victims. Two of the clergymen left after a top aide to Mahony informed them of allegations, and a third was told to join the priesthood in the Philippines. Of the six, two are fugitives.
* Police complained in two cases that church officials had hampered criminal investigations by refusing to cooperate. In one inquiry, Long Beach police say, they were turned away from archdiocese headquarters when they asked for help. "The door was shut in our face," said Long Beach Det. Randi Castillo, a 26-year veteran who led an investigation in the mid-1990s of a popular pastor who allegedly had molested at least 10 altar boys. "This was absolutely something I had never encountered in all my years in law enforcement."
* Two convicted sex offenders were allowed to continue serving as priests for years before Mahony dismissed them in February in response to the growing furor over clergy sex abuse. Both priests resided at parishes within walking distance of Catholic elementary schools, where administrators and parents were not informed of their criminal backgrounds.
* The archdiocese has agreed to four out-of-court settlements totaling $9.2 million since 2000. The archdiocese's share of the cost was $3.7 million. The agreements included confidentiality clauses to keep the sexual abuses secret.
* The archdiocese routinely failed to report errant priests to authorities until 1997, when a new California law compelled clergy to disclose all allegations of sexual abuse of minors. Before the legislation was passed, a top aide to Mahony discouraged at least three alleged victims from going to police.
Now, Mahony and the archdiocese are bracing for possible indictments of 15 current and former priests on felony sex charges, according to law enforcement sources. In addition, the archdiocese is facing a class-action suit, filed last month, seeking millions of dollars.
In a series of interviews, Mahony said the archdiocese has worked closely with law enforcement on a wide range of issues over the years and that authorities have long known about nearly all of the sexual abuse cases involving priests in the Los Angeles Archdiocese. The allegations were often reported to police, Mahony said, by therapists, teachers and victims themselves.
"There was no sort of policy on my part that we would not cooperate with law enforcement," the cardinal said. Because reporting was not mandated until 1997, "this was not an area of responsibility for the church. We always made sure that people knew that they themselves were the ones who should make the report or should contact police. We also have cases, if I might say so, where the police didn't do much about it either."
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley called Mahony's characterization "disingenuous."
"The historic culture of the archdiocese in cooperating with local law enforcement has been inadequate and flawed," Cooley said. "Morally, the archdiocese should have been the first to step forward on behalf of victims and actively cooperate with law enforcement regarding known instances of clerical sexual abuse."
34 Alleged Abusers Have Been Identified
Based on a review of internal archdiocese records, police reports and lawsuits, The Times identified 33 parish priests and one deacon who, since Mahony's arrival in 1985, have been accused of molesting minors. Seven of the clerics were dismissed by the cardinal in February after clergy sex abuse drew increased attention as a national scandal. Six fled, three have been convicted of sex crimes and 17 are under criminal investigation by law enforcement officials. One priest committed suicide after charges of sexual abuse were dismissed. The Times examination also included more than 100 interviews with church officials, law enforcement authorities, alleged victims and their attorneys.