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L.A. church leaders sought to hide sex abuse cases from authorities

Documents from the late 1980s show that Archbishop Roger M. Mahony and another archdiocese official discussed strategies to keep police from discovering that children were being sexually abused by priests.

January 21, 2013|By Victoria Kim, Ashley Powers and Harriet Ryan

Garcia's was one of three cases in 1987 in which top church officials discussed ways they could stymie law enforcement. In a letter about Father Michael Wempe, who had acknowledged using a 12-year-old parishioner as what a church official called his "sex partner," Curry recounted extensive conversations with the priest about potential criminal prosecution.

"He is afraid ... records will be sought by the courts at some time and that they could convict him," Curry wrote to Mahony. "He is very aware that what he did comes within the scope of criminal law."

Curry proposed Wempe could go to an out-of-state diocese "if need be." He called it "surprising" that a church-paid counselor hadn't reported Wempe to police and wrote that he and Wempe "agreed it would be better if Mike did not return to him."

Perhaps, Curry added, the priest could be sent to "a lawyer who is also a psychiatrist" thereby putting "the reports under the protection of privilege."

Curry expressed similar concerns to Mahony about Father Michael Baker, who had admitted his abuse of young boys during a private 1986 meeting with the archbishop.

In a memo about Baker's return to ministry, Curry wrote, "I see a difficulty here, in that if he were to mention his problem with child abuse it would put the therapist in the position of having to report him … he cannot mention his past problem."

Mahony's response to the memo was handwritten across the bottom of the page: "Sounds good —please proceed!!" Two decades would pass before authorities gathered enough information to convict Baker and Wempe of abusing boys.

Federal and state prosecutors have investigated possible conspiracy cases against the archdiocese hierarchy. Former Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said in 2007 that his probe into the conduct of high-ranking church officials was on hold until his prosecutors could access the personnel files of all the abusers. The U.S. attorney's office convened a grand jury in 2009, but no charges resulted.

During those investigations, the church was forced by judges to turn over some but not all of the records to prosecutors. The district attorney's office has said its prosecutors plan to review priest personnel files as they are released.

Mahony was appointed archbishop in 1985 after five years leading the Stockton diocese. While there, he had dealt with three allegations of clergy abuse, including one case in which he personally reported the priest to police.

In Los Angeles, he tapped Curry, an Irish-born priest, as vicar of clergy. The records show that sex abuse allegations were handled almost exclusively by the archbishop and his vicar. Memos that crossed their desks included graphic details, such as one letter from another priest accusing Garcia of tying up and raping a young boy in Lancaster.

Mahony personally phoned the priests' therapists about their progress, wrote the priests encouraging letters and dispatched Curry to visit them at a New Mexico facility, Servants of the Paraclete, that treated pedophile priests.

"Each of you there at Jemez Springs is very much in my prayers and I call you to mind each day during my celebration of the Eucharist,"Mahony wrote to Wempe.

The month after he was named archbishop, Mahony met with Garcia to discuss his molestation of boys, according to a letter the priest wrote while in therapy. Mahony instructed him to be "very low key" and assured him "no one was looking at him for any criminal action," Garcia recalled in a letter to an official at Servants of the Paraclete.

In a statement Monday on behalf of the archdiocese, a lawyer for the church said its policy in the late 1980s was to let victims and their families decide whether to go to the police.

"Not surprisingly, the families of victims frequently did not wish to report to police and have their child become the center of a public prosecution," lawyer J. Michael Hennigan wrote.

He acknowledged memos written in those years "sometimes focused more on the needs of the perpetrator than on the serious harm that had been done to the victims."

"That is part of the past," Hennigan wrote. "We are embarrassed and at times ashamed by parts of the past. But we are proud of our progress, which is continuing."

Hennigan said that the years in which Mahony dealt with Garcia were "a period of deepening understanding of the nature of the problem of sex abuse both here and in our society in general" and that the archdiocese subsequently changed completely its approach to reports of abuse.

"We now have retired FBI agents who thoroughly investigate every allegation, even anonymous calls. We aggressively assist in the criminal prosecution of offenders," Hennigan wrote.

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