At least six months after Cardinal Roger M. Mahony told his superiors at the Vatican that a videotape provided proof of a priest's criminal misconduct with high school boys, the head of the Los Angeles Archdiocese told the public that the tape showed no sexual activity between Father Lynn Caffoe and the boys, according to court records.
Documents newly filed in the Caffoe civil case provide the first glimpse into confidential priest files that Mahony sought for four years to keep sealed in the midst of a sexual abuse scandal that engulfed the archdiocese. He eventually took the secrecy fight to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a letter to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before Ratzinger became pope in April 2005, Mahony said Caffoe had videotaped "partially naked" boys in a state of sexual arousal. The tape was "objective verification that criminal behavior did occur," Mahony wrote, according to papers filed last week in Los Angeles County Superior Court in a lawsuit by four plaintiffs who allege that Caffoe abused them.
In October 2005, in what Mahony told parishioners was the "fullest possible disclosure" about the scandal, he reported that a videotape had been discovered in 1992 in Caffoe's bedroom, depicting "improper behavior" with high school boys. But the cardinal said the boys were "fully clothed" and there was no sexual activity.
Since that report, an appellate court ordered Mahony to turn over confidential files to prosecutors, and a Superior Court judge ruled that the files must be given to plaintiffs suing the church for damages for allegedly failing to protect them from pedophile priests.
J. Michael Hennigan, Mahony's lawyer, said he sees no contradiction between Mahony's public statements and the file contents because at the time the cardinal spoke out, the archdiocese was under court order not to reveal the contents of the personnel files. Hennigan said two judges had reviewed the material and considered the summary to be adequate. The statements "were not intended to be a description of the contents of the files, which we were not allowed to do," Hennigan said. They merely served as "an index, a chronology."
He said he does not think Mahony ever saw the videotape, which is not in the church files and may never have been there, Hennigan said.
Mahony's letter to the Vatican, though still not fully public, was quoted in a court filing by four people who say they were victimized by Caffoe. Their lawyers argue that the letter and other documents, newly released to the plaintiffs, show that Mahony and other officials of the Roman Catholic Church in Los Angeles misrepresented the breadth and seriousness of the priest abuse reports that they received in the years before they moved to fully address the molestation problem.
"Let me be very clear on this: The cardinal did not turn over this information willingly," said Irvine attorney Katherine K. Freberg, who represents plaintiffs in the Caffoe case. "He was forced to by the courts. It is only because of this civil lawsuit filed by these brave victims that we uncovered all the salacious details about what the archdiocese knew about Father Caffoe molesting children."
Caffoe, 61, has been accused of molesting multiple minors between 1975 and 1994. He left the area in 1994 after his therapist reported an abuse allegation to child-protection authorities, and he has not been charged with a crime. Freberg said she has been unable to locate him, but his lawyer, Donald Steier, said he is alive and actively fought to keep his files confidential.
Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, said Mahony had not reported Caffoe's alleged crime to prosecutors.
"Not to the knowledge of the people in this office who have been involved in the clergy abuse cases for several years," she said.
Whether the videotape could serve as the basis for prosecution depends on when it was made, who is in it, and whether they would testify, Gibbons added.
The suit by the four Caffoe accusers, which is set for trial in August, is one of more than 500 claims filed against the archdiocese over the decades-long clergy abuse scandal. The archdiocese paid $60 million to settle with 45 victims in December.
The church long has kept confidential files on sensitive issues involving priests, including sexual abuse accusations and reports of drinking or mental health problems, as well as records of referrals for treatment, reassignments and other personnel matters.
Caffoe's accusers cited portions of his file as support for a motion to seek punitive damages against the church, alleging that it engaged in "oppression, fraud and malice" in disregarding multiple allegations about the priest's misconduct with children.
Mahony called a 2004 report to parishioners "the best information we can glean at this time." In an addendum a year later, Mahony said three families had reported Caffoe to their parish in 1991 for being "overly familiar" with their teenage sons.