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Mahony Ousts Priests in Sex Abuse Cases

Clergy: Church sources say as many as 12 are involved. They are quietly fired or forced to retire.

March 04, 2002|LARRY B. STAMMER and WILLIAM LOBDELL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Of the targeted priests in the Los Angeles archdiocese, those who are 62 or older have been asked to retire. Younger priests were told that their status as priests was now "inactive." Those who resided in a parish rectory or other church facility were asked to move out.

In one case, a priest was said to have been given 72 hours to pack his belongings and leave.

In face-to-face meetings with Mahony, the priests were also reportedly asked to consider leaving the priesthood entirely through a process called laicization, a step rarely taken upon retirement, a knowledgeable church source said. They were also offered what one churchman called a "generous" severance package.

Word of the dismissals came a week after Mahony issued a strongly worded pastoral statement published in the archdiocesan weekly newspaper in which he reiterated a "zero tolerance" policy when it comes to sexual abuse of a minor.

Mahony promised that the archdiocese "will not knowingly assign or retain a priest, deacon, religious or layperson to serve in its parishes, schools, pastoral ministries, or any other assignment when such an individual is determined to have previously engaged in the sexual abuse of a minor."

The problem of child sexual abuse by priests threatens not only the church's credibility but its finances. Various estimates by legal experts have suggested the church had paid out hundreds of millions in settlements over the years. The $5.2-million settlement in DiMaria's case last year in Orange County is believed to be the largest sum involving a single individual.

One church source noted that if Mahony were accused of failing to abide by the terms of the DiMaria settlement, his diocese would be liable.

"If he were accused of anything, his pockets are the deepest. He owns everything," the source said. "Now the archbishop is able to answer unequivocally when asked 'are you keeping any sexually abusing priests in your archdiocese?' that the answer is an unequivocal no."

Mahony Voiced Concern to Peers

Mahony became archbishop in 1986, two years before the archdiocese said it adopted a sexual abuse policy. In 1992, Mahony publicly expressed concern about clergy sexual abuse during a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, then known as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Meeting in Washington, the bishops conference hotel was picketed by individuals who said they had been sexually abused as minors by priests. The issue was not on the bishops' agenda, but they quickly consented to a private meeting led by Mahony.

"These were good people who have been deeply wounded by the misconduct of some of our priests," Mahony said in reporting back to the bishops in unscheduled public remarks. "These were people whose faith has been shattered and in some cases lost."

The bishops then voted unanimously to step up efforts to remain vigilant against sexual abuse, but victims complained then that the pledge was inadequate.

As recently as last month, the president of the bishops conference, the Most Rev. Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., renewed the pledge by U.S. bishops to "continue to take all the steps necessary to protect our youth from this kind of abuse in society and in the church."

Gregory said the church was confident that "few" of the nation's 47,000 priests were involved in such conduct. "The damage, however, has been immeasurable. The toll this phenomenon has taken on our people and our ministry is tremendous. This is a time for Catholic people--bishops, clergy, religious and laity--to resolve to work together to assure the safety of our children," Gregory said.

As part of Gregory's statement, the bishops conference announced an Internet site that details church policies and actions taken to fight sexual abuse. That site is www.usccb.org/comm/restoretrust.htm.

How that will play out, however, is a difficult question as individual bishops work to address the injury to and needs of victims and their families, and to care for accused priests.

In Los Angeles, one church source said the ousters suggested the archdiocese had stopped dealing with priest molestation as a treatable mental health problem.

"The mental health model is being set aside and the criminal-justice model is being inserted. So all you have for these priests is a retribution model," the source said. "My fear is the church is going from being careless in treating abused children to being careless in treating abusing priests," the churchman said.

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Times staff writers Rosemary McClure and Greg Krikorian contributed to this report.

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