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Testimony sheds light on Mahony's handling of priest sex abuse

L.A. cardinal defends his 1986 decision not to contact police after a priest told him about molestations because it was church policy at the time to handle such issues 'pastorally,' deposition shows.

June 16, 2010|By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

Cardinal Roger Mahony defended his 1986 decision not to inform police about a priest who admitted he molested children, saying his actions were consistent with church policy at that time, according to a deposition made public Tuesday.

Mahony has long said he made mistakes in allowing Michael Baker to stay in the priesthood after he confessed to having sexually assaulted young boys.

But in the deposition — the first to be publicly released covering Mahony's handling of Los Angeles Archdiocese molestation cases — the cardinal gives the clearest picture yet of his actions regarding Baker, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence for child molestation.

The archdiocese attempted unsuccessfully to have a judge seal the document from public view.

Mahony said Baker told him about the abuse during a church retreat. He sent Baker into counseling before eventually reassigning him to different parishes, where he molested more children. Mahony said in the deposition that he didn't take stronger action in part because Baker lied to him. The cardinal said the priest told him the abuses had been isolated incidents in the distant past, when in fact he molested children over a period of 20 years.

Mahony said in the Jan. 25 deposition that church policy at the time was to deal with problem priests "pastorally" by providing counseling in church facilities and restricting their duties in subsequent ministries to keep them away from children.

"The challenge is trying to look at 1986 through the lenses of 2010," Mahony told attorney John Manly, explaining that more proactive measures are taken now after reports of abuse.

Baker, 61, continues to be the target of lawsuits by other alleged victims, the latest of which also accuses Mahony and the Catholic church hierarchy of complicity for failing to act on Baker's initial confession.

Asked about confidential files kept by the archdiocese vicar for clergy prior to his arrival in Los Angeles in 1985, Mahony said he never looked into the dossiers of reported molestations by priests. He said he preferred to get acquainted with the clergy in his domain through personal interaction.

Mahony said church policies for dealing with child sex abuse allegations at the time of Baker's confession were "really inadequate." At that time, law enforcement authorities were called in only when there were victims identified and available for questioning, the cardinal said.

Mahony sent Baker to a treatment center in New Mexico, then moved him to various parishes in the archdiocese where he has been accused of sexually violating other children.

The archdiocese didn't make contact with the victims Baker said he had abused because the priest told Mahony the boys were illegal immigrants and had gone back to Mexico, the cardinal said.

Mahony issued a statement after the deposition was released, saying that he wanted to apologize again to Baker's victims and the community.

"I believed too readily in Baker's contrition, and in our ability to treat and monitor him effectively," the cardinal wrote. "The past has informed the present, however, and I have made sure that our sexual abuse prevention policies and procedures will keep our children and young people safe from predators like Michael Baker."

But Barbara Blaine, national president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, deemed Mahony's excuse "absurd."

"If, in fact, Father Baker's victims had left the U.S., Mahony's duty to call police was even greater, since the chances that the kids themselves would contact law enforcement was virtually nil," Blaine said.

Mahony was also questioned about an incident in the mid-1990s after Baker's reassignment to St. Columbkille parish in which a young boy was seen descending from the rectory staircase leading to Baker's bedroom. Mahony said he had understood the incident to be a "boundary violation" but that no evidence or allegations surfaced to suggest sexual misconduct had occurred.

The cardinal said under questioning that he didn't report Baker to police after he learned of the rectory incident, nor after Baker was reported to be performing baptisms at another assignment where he was prohibited from contact with children.

Mahony was questioned in a pretrial procedure in a complaint filed by a victim known only as Luis C. That case against Baker and the archdiocese was settled in April for $2.2 million.

Archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg, who was present for the questioning of the cardinal, said there was "nothing of substance" revealed by Mahony's testimony that differed from what the church has said for years about the Baker case. The church fought release of the deposition on principle, Tamberg said, because it was part of a case that's now closed.

The Los Angeles Archdiocese three years ago paid $660 million, a church record, to more than 500 people who had sued claiming sexual abuse by priests or other church officials.

carol.williams@latimes.com

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