Bishop Thomas J. Curry, shown in 2008, would shape the way the nation's… (Paul Wellman/Santa Barbara…)
SANTA BARBARA — When he took office in 1985, Roger M. Mahony set about modernizing the operations of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. He brought in computers and put women in top jobs.
He then appointed an Irish-born academic to a brand-new cabinet position: Vicar for Clergy, a human resources director of sorts for priests, brothers and nuns. Msgr. Thomas J. Curry would shape the way the nation's largest archdiocese responded to claims that its priests had molested and raped children.
In his five years in the role, Curry was a staunch defender of the church and its clergymen. And as revealed in secret church records made public last week, he chose again and again to conceal clerics' crimes from police and put priests' welfare ahead of helping victims.
On Thursday, as his former boss was publicly rebuked, the 70-year-old regional bishop in Santa Barbara stepped down, part of an unprecedented reaction by the Catholic Church to the clergy child abuse scandal. It was a stunning fall for a man who had acted as a right hand for one of the most powerful U.S. Catholic prelates.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, February 04, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Bishop Curry: An A1 article Feb. 3 on Bishop Thomas J. Curry incorrectly identified him as the author of a 1989 letter instructing Father Kevin Barmasse to stay in Arizona. It was then-Archbishop Roger M. Mahony who wrote the letter.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, February 10, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Bishop Thomas J. Curry: In the Feb. 3 Section A, an article about Bishop Thomas J. Curry identified him as the author of a 1989 letter instructing Father Kevin Barmasse to stay in Arizona. The letter was written by then-Archbishop Roger M. Mahony, not Curry.
Over the years, Curry has issued numerous public apologies in response to the sex abuse scandal. At the same time, he has been outspoken in his criticism of government authorities who, he says, were overzealous in their investigations.
"The targeting of the Church (particularly in California), the overreaching of district attorneys and prosecutors, and the lack of due process and fairness for the Church has been tyrannical," he once wrote on a personal blog.
In another online missive, he criticized a San Diego federal judge who had upheld a California law allowing victims to sue for decades-old abuse: "Americans assume that the days of Henry VIII, when rulers declared themselves authorities in religious matters, are long gone in America. For Catholics, unfortunately, that is far from the reality."
In an email to The Times on Saturday, Curry said he wrote the blog posts to make the point that the Catholic Church was being unfairly blamed for a "society-wide issue."
"I do believe that it is a mistake for society to treat this as a 'Catholic Church' problem," he said.
Memos and letters
Not long after his appointment as vicar in 1985, Curry was discussing ways to keep the misdeeds of priests out of the court system, the newly released records show. Curry wrote memos and letters stating that he believed the church was not legally responsible for the harm its priests caused.
In November 1989, Curry wrote to Mahony about where to assign Father Kevin Barmasse, who had been sent to Tucson years earlier after molesting a Lakewood boy. The priest wanted to return to Los Angeles. Curry wrote: "The young boy involved is now about eighteen, so Kevin should certainly not return for another two years by which time the period for filing law suits will have passed."
In a letter that same month, he told Barmasse to stay in Arizona.
"While such suits are not effective against the Archdiocese, in that the Archdiocese was not aware of your behavior and did take action as soon as it became aware of it, they are extremely painful for all parties involved," Curry wrote. "Our experience tells us that your presence in the area ... would greatly increase the possibility of a suit against you."
He also dismissed the notion that the church bore responsibility for the acts of Msgr. Peter Garcia, a priest who targeted the children of undocumented immigrants.
In a 1990 letter, Curry wrote that he viewed a boy molested by Garcia as "the victim of a person who, as a result of his own illness, committed grave wrongs."
"Although the person was a priest, he did not perform these wrongs as a representative of the Church or even with its knowledge," he wrote.
Curry, as Mahony's delegate in handling abuse claims, dealt directly with the problem priests. After he met and corresponded with them, his sympathies often appeared to lie with the clerics.
Of one priest, George Neville Rucker, accused in 1989 by a 31-year-old woman of decades-old abuse, he wrote: "It was of great concern to him that for something that was so casual to him at the time could be so devastating to her ... he stays awake at night because of this."
"The trouble it caused him and his transfer was such a trauma for him that he has never been involved in anything since that time," Curry recounted.
Curry also proposed to Mahony that another priest stay away from a therapist who "should have" contacted police but did not. And he raised the possibility of sending an abusive cleric to a psychiatrist who was also an attorney so their conversations would remain legally confidential.
Curry declined to respond to questions on the files, saying he has "not had the time or opportunity" to review them. He said he felt "profound regret, disappointment, sorrow and sympathy" for parishioners who may have felt betrayed by the revelations.
Curry emphasized that his actions related to priest abuse were at the behest of Mahony.