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Cardinal Mahony is expected to testify in a clergy abuse lawsuit in Fresno

Two brothers say they were molested by a priest for 14 years at a church in a small town north of Bakersfield. For part of that time, Mahony served as an administrator in the Fresno Diocese.

March 17, 2009|Victoria Kim and Duke Helfand

Cardinal Roger Mahony is expected to testify in a clergy sexual abuse lawsuit in Fresno today, marking only the second time he has taken the witness stand to answer questions before jurors about alleged molestation by priests.

The Fresno lawsuit was brought by two brothers who say they were molested by a priest for 14 years at a church in Wasco, a small town north of Bakersfield. For part of the time, Mahony served in various high-level administrative positions in the Diocese of Fresno, which had jurisdiction over the parish, according to legal documents.

The brothers' lawsuit had initially been thrown out by a trial judge but was revived in May by state appellate judges, who seized on Mahony's own words. They said Mahony's testimony during a deposition could indicate that higher-ups in the Fresno Diocese had been alerted to the alleged abuse. Mahony, who is not a defendant in the case, has been subpoenaed as a trial witness.

Lawyers for the two plaintiffs, George and Howard Santillan, declined to comment. Attorneys for the Fresno Diocese did not respond to phone calls.

"Mahony is by far the highest-ranking U.S. Catholic official to testify at a civil trial," said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org. "This is extremely rare."

Mahony last appeared in court in 1998 over allegations by two Stockton-area brothers that they were abused for years by a priest who was under Mahony's watch for some of the time.

The case resulted in a $30-million jury verdict, which was later reduced to $7 million in a settlement. Mahony, who was the bishop of Stockton from 1980 until 1985, said in his testimony that he was unaware of the alleged abuse.

Mahony's testimony this week comes amid a federal grand jury investigation into whether the cardinal or other church leaders committed fraud by failing to adequately deal with priests accused of sexual abuse in Los Angeles. Mahony has not given sworn testimony in any of hundreds of cases filed in Los Angeles, his attorney said.

The Santillan brothers allege that they were molested by a priest from 1959 to 1973. A part-time housekeeper let the boys into the priest's rectory bedroom and knew they were alone with him, the brothers alleged, according to court documents.

When confronted by the boys' mother years later, the housekeeper cried and apologized; she died before the brothers sued the diocese, according to the documents.

A Superior Court judge threw out the case, saying there was no evidence that the housekeeper ever reported her suspicions to church officials. In his deposition in the case, however, Mahony testified that he would have expected the housekeeper to tell "somebody" if she believed abuse had occurred. The appellate judges said that Mahony offered the only indication that the housekeeper had a duty to report the alleged incidents, and therefore that diocese officials might have been aware of them. They returned the case for trial in Fresno Superior Court.

The plaintiffs' attorneys sought to question Mahony about other instances of alleged abuse by priests, but Superior Court Judge Donald S. Black turned down the request.

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victoria.kim@latimes.com

duke.helfand@latimes.com

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