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Priests' ecclesiastical missteps treated more sternly than abuse

Files detail cases in which L.A. Archdiocese officials displayed outrage over a priest's violation of canon law while doing little for victims of his sexual abuse.

February 02, 2013|By Victoria Kim, Ashley Powers and Harriet Ryan

Father Lynn Caffoe was sent to a Maryland treatment center in 1991. In a letter to the center, Dyer said that "apart from Father Caffoe's behavior with minors" the church was also concerned about his failure "to record any of the 60 additional baptisms ... and ... there have been nearly 100 marriages he has not documented."

"In the matter of failure to record sacramental events -- this is not just unprofessional, but a terribly serious matter in parish life," Dyer said, adding that Caffoe had told a supervisor the records were "in a box somewhere" but never produced them.

In Ugarte's case, it was a second complaint from a victim that led to the full-scale canonical investigation of his administration of the sacraments. In the early 1990s, the teenage boy mentioned to church officials that Ugarte had ended each episode of molestation by absolving him of sin.

"What really confused me was the fact that after taking advantage of me, he would place his hand on my forehead and give me a prayer of absolution. While I felt forgiven by God, I still felt dirty," the victim wrote. He told church officials he had been abused by Ugarte about 15 times. Mahony ultimately dropped the attempt to excommunicate the priest and instead placed him on inactive leave.

The focus on religious rather than sexual transgression appeared to reflect church leaders' unease with sexual topics and comfort with the clearly spelled-out world of canon law. In a posting on his blog Friday, Mahony blamed ignorance for his mishandling of abusers.

"Nothing in my own background or education equipped me to deal with this grave problem," he said. When he got his social work degree, he wrote, "No textbook and no lecture ever referred to the sexual abuse of children."

Richard Sipe, a former priest and a consultant to victims' attorneys in clergy sex abuse cases, said most priests learned about sexual deviance in the confessional and were perhaps more apt to consider child sex abuse as a sin to be absolved rather than adjudicated in a court.

"They think, 'We are the arbiters of sin,' " he said. "That's why you hear them saying, 'We had to keep this confidential, we can't say anything about sins.' "

He also said that the hierarchy may have been reacting to what they perceived as a direct challenge to church authorities.

"This is a problem of power and control," Sipe said.

Nicholas Cafardi, a professor at Duquesne University and a canon law expert who served as general counsel for the Pittsburgh diocese, said sexual abuse of children had been an ecclesiastical crime since the seventh century but had not been properly treated within the Catholic Church before the mid-1990s.

"When it came to treating sexual abuse of children as an ecclesiastical crime, the church legal system failed," he said. He added that church officials may have decided to more aggressively crack down on other violations of canon law because of a five-year statute of limitations when it came to sex abuse cases.

The church fought all the way to the state Supreme Court to keep many of the records secret. The archdiocese abandoned a plan make the documents public with the names of the hierarchy blacked out only after media organizations, including The Times, sued in court. The judge sided with the media, but in many of the documents posted online, Mahony's name and that of his top aide on abuse in the 1980s, Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Curry, are still redacted.

Asked about the redactions, a lawyer for the archdiocese, J. Michael Hennigan, pledged to "fix it."

"It was our intention to always release the Cardinal and Bishop Curry's names when they appeared," he wrote in an email.

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