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Mishandling of abuse cases threatens Mahony's legacy with Latinos

Revelations about how the retired L.A. archbishop dealt with two pedophile priests threaten to tarnish his legacy of fighting for immigrants, an effort he described as his calling.

January 26, 2013|By Hector Becerra, Ashley Powers and Harriet Ryan, Los Angeles Times
  • Archbishop Roger M. Mahony blesses parishioners at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in 1992. The revelations about his mishandling of two pedophile priests threaten to tarnish his legacy of fighting for immigrants, an effort that was widely acknowledged as a triumph in his tenure.
Archbishop Roger M. Mahony blesses parishioners at St. Thomas the Apostle… (Los Angeles Times )

On a Sunday night at Dodger Stadium in 1986, Archbishop Roger M. Mahony celebrated Mass in flawless Spanish. In an era when immigrants in Los Angeles were routinely derided as parasites and criminals, the archbishop told the crowd of 55,000 that whether they were born in Puebla, San Salvador or Managua, they were part of his flock.

"The Catholic Church is your home and I am your pastor," Mahony said.

But even as cheers of "Rogelio! Rogelio!" rained down from the upper decks, Mahony was covering up the sexual abuse of some of the most vulnerable in the church, including in his beloved Latino community, church records show.

Over the last four decades, hundreds of people have come forward to say they were abused by priests in the archdiocese. Children were victimized at parishes across the L.A. area, in poor neighborhoods as well as wealthy ones. But internal church documents released last week shined a spotlight on Mahony's mishandling of two pedophile priests who abused the undocumented — a group the prelate often described as society's most in need of protection. Mahony worked to make sure the priests got therapy, found new jobs and stayed out of prison. For the child victims, little was done.

The revelations threaten to tarnish his legacy of fighting for immigrants, an effort Mahony described as his calling and one that was widely acknowledged as a triumph in his tenure.

"Roger Mahony will continue to be my friend. But reading all this stuff, it breaks my heart," said Antonia Hernandez, an immigrant rights activist who's worked with Mahony since he was a bishop in Stockton in the late 1970s. "Here are these people he spent his whole life protecting from abuse and when he could do something about it, he didn't."

But Hernandez, the president and chief executive of the California Community Foundation, a leading philanthropic organization, said Mahony did too much for immigrants for his achievements to be dismissed, saying: "His affinity for the immigrant community, the farmworker, is genuine and real."

Mahony, who stepped down as archbishop in 2011, declined to be interviewed for this story. In a statement, the cardinal said in part: "What is particularly appalling to me is that while so many of us in the Church were working to secure legal rights for undocumented people, some clearly were undoing those rights through their sexual exploitation of the children of these families."

Last week, after the release of the church records, Mahony apologized for not having done more to combat the problem of predatory priests, saying he keeps the names of abuse victims he's met on index cards and prays for them daily.

Perhaps no case underscores the contrast between Mahony's crusade to help illegal immigrants, and his role in covering up for priests who targeted their children, than that of Msgr. Peter Garcia, who'd once overseen the archdiocese's Latino outreach efforts.

Before Mahony's arrival, Garcia had been accused of raping a boy and threatening to have him deported if he told police. Mahony's predecessor sent him to treatment in New Mexico. In begging to return to California, Garcia promised church officials that the family would not take legal action.

"They do love their Church and even when hurt do try to protect their priests and religious," Garcia wrote. "This is a very strong Hispanic characteristic."

By the time of the Dodger Stadium event, Mahony was well-acquainted with the priest.

Mahony met with Garcia the month after he was named archbishop, in 1985. They discussed his molestation of boys, according to a letter the priest wrote while in New Mexico. Mahony told Garcia to be "very low-key" when he visited L.A., the priest said. A year later, after Garcia was discharged, Mahony ordered that he not move back to California right away.

"I believe that if Monsignor Garcia were to reappear here within the archdiocese we might very well have some type of legal action filed in both the criminal and civil sectors," Mahony wrote to the treatment center's director.

During the mid- to late '80s, Mahony waged public battles to protect immigrants from being exploited. He also held private discussions over rogue priests who victimized the children of immigrants, and who threatened to damage the church's reputation.

On Sept. 1, 1986, Mahony told a Catholic labor gathering to "stand up" for immigrant workers in the community. "Many of them are not documented, afraid to even speak of their own rights," he said. "These people are so vulnerable."

On Dec. 10, Mahony held a news conference to speak up about the Simpson-Mazzoli amnesty for undocumented immigrants enacted during the Reagan administration. "We feel that the Catholic Church, with so many of these [illegal immigrants] as its members, enjoys their immediate trust and respect, and we expect they will come to us for help," he said.

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