Cardinal Mahony's Legacy: L.A. Archdiocese Docs Show Child Sex Abuse Coverup

A question on the minds of a lot of Catholics and non-Catholics alike is why Cardinal Roger Mahony has not faced criminal prosecution, but it's not one that the Vatican can answer. Ultimately, it lies with the Los Angeles County district attorney and the U.S. attorney's office, both of which conducted investigations into allegations that Mahony covered up child abuse accusations and sheltered accused perpetrators in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

It appears that Mahony, who retired from the leadership of the Archdiocese in 2011, and others on his staff have the statute of limitations to thank, since the cases in question go back further than a decade.

A payment of $13 million to settle existing cases involving clergy abuse victims, announced early last week, brings the total of settlement payments over the last decade to $720 million. The Archdiocese also released internal documents showing that Mahony and his top aide, Monsignor Thomas Curry, cooperated to shield priests and withhold evidence from police.

According to Mahony, he was protecting families who'd been promised abusers would never return to Los Angeles and protecting altar servers he didn't believe had been victims of a crime, whom he said would be traumatized by questioning.

However, files released in early 2013 show Mahony petitioning the Vatican in 1993 (during the papacy of John Paul II) to take action on his request to remove abusive priest Father Kevin Barnasse, who had then appealed to the Holy See.

"The case has been there for many, many months," Mahony wrote to one Vatican office dealing with clerical misconduct. "The lengthy delay has created several problems for my own credibility as a Diocesan Bishop."

Mahony wasn't alone in his frustration at dealing with the Vatican in the '80s and '90s, when antiquated and complex procedures, sparse staffing, a lack of understanding of the scope of the problem, and a general inability of the ancient organization to respond quickly hampered efforts to deal with the crisis.

In 2001, the year before before news of the sex abuse scandal broke in the Boston media, the Vatican began to revamp and centralize the investigation process into the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

The Feb. 16, 2013 Los Angeles Times piece reporting on this has a somewhat sympathetic tone towards Mahony.

Yet one year later, a recent NBC Los Angeles piece on the new revelations say the documents reports: "Mahony, who was elevated to cardinal and retired in 2011, maneuvered behind the scenes with his top aide Monsignor Thomas Curry to shield molesters, provide damage control for the church and keep parishioners in the dark."

Another Los Angeles Times piece, from Feb. 2, 2013, details the difference between the severity of a priest's punishment for ecclesiastical mistakes and what he received for serious sexual sin. It also looks at the inadequacies of the religious order tasked with offering psychological therapy and rehabilitation to offenders (an approach once thought useful but now largely discredited as an effective way to prevent future abuse).

The great majority of the cases against the Archdiocese, and the Catholic Church in general, stem from incidents that happened decades ago. While only God may ultimately be able to forgive all the offending priests and the bishops who failed to protect children from them, the sexual abuse of children is a massive and ongoing phenomenon.

Much of it occurs in the home, involving friends, relatives, and especially live-in boyfriends, but it crops up across religious and cultural lines, in public and private schools, by coaches and others within sports organizations – who can forget the horrors at Penn State – among the Boy Scouts and just about anywhere that adult predators can put themselves in proximity to their prey.

In many of these cases, including schools, the Boy Scouts, and the Church, the organizations tried to handle the problems internally so as to not expose themselves to the law and public scrutiny. Unfortunately, this is often standard operating procedures when scandal erupts in a large organization, and those who should be protecting victims instead think of themselves primarily as caretakers of the status quo.

Although the Church scandals involve a small percentage of priests (four percent of U.S. priests between 1950 and 2002 were ever even accused) and overwhelmingly address incidents from the past – which is important to remember for perspective while not diminishing the ongoing suffering of the victims – by the nature of the people involved, it's a compelling narrative for both news and fiction.

The idea of the pedophile priest molesting little children has become lodged in the public consciousness, though the bulk of victims were post-pubescent male teens.

Also, the Catholic Church is nationwide and worldwide, so scandals in one area have an effect far beyond their geographical borders and therefore are often reported as national and even international stories. The same is not true of schools, scouting or other groups, with local stories generally remaining local.

One exception, for a while anyway, was Penn State. However, passions have cooled, and now a sympathetic NCAA has recently reduced the football program's punishment for child rape by coach Jerry Sandusky and the subsequent cover-up.

Perhaps most importantly, the Catholic Church is a moral voice in the world, which amplifies its failures and shortcomings because they are also instances of public sin and hypocrisy.

Unfortunately, this may have led to an impression that attacking the Church represents the best front in the war against child sexual abuse. Nothing could be further from the truth, and anyone hammering the Church for its moral and legal transgressions should be equally as vigilant when it comes to the innumerable other places in the world where horrific abuse continues apace to this day.

To the credit of Los Angeles print and broadcast media, while it has quite rightly covered the accusations against Mahony and the Archdiocese extensively, it has also shown great vigor in covering cases of more recent vintage.

These include 61 settlement payments by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) for cases involving 7-to-10-year-old children subjected to nauseating abuse by Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt between 2008 and 2010. The incidents came to light when a film processor reported Berndt's disturbing photos of children to authorities.

This 61 settlements do not, though, represent the total number of people who who filed suits.

The investigation process caused controversy within the ranks of administrators and teachers, and now a new lawsuit alleges that, due to corruption and cronyism, a lot of LAUSD settlement money was paid out to those who were not victims.

As quoted in an NBC Los Angeles story, Brian Claypool, an attorney representing families that have not settled, said, "If the allegations in this new lawsuit are true, it validates the fact that the LAUSD was just trying to throw a rug over all these cases. They wanted it to go away and just write a check to these kids."

It's not over, with a lawsuit filed late last year against an LAUSD teacher accused of abusing three 8-11-year-old girls (and perhaps a dozen more), and the recent arrest of Bell High School teacher Peter Christopher Gomez for the alleged sexual assault of a student in 1999 at Franklin High School, in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles.

All this takes place against a backdrop of a city known for tolerating almost all forms of sexual behavior, especially in the entertainment industry, which has an attitude toward sex with minors that can be best described as ambivalent.

When a priest is accused of sexual misconduct with a minor, Hollywood is all over it, but the response is somewhat muted when it involves people like Woody Allen, Roman Polanski or Kevin Clash (the original voice of Elmo on "Sesame Street," whose suits were dismissed because, similar to Mahony, too much time had passed).

There has been news coverage of child molestation and child pornography cases, and there have been several TV and feature films dealing with the Church scandals. Yet no movie has been made to date addressing the allegations made by former child star Corey Feldman of his and late friend Corey Haim's sexual abuse at the hands of adult men in Hollywood, nor of other similar cases involving people in the entertainment industry.

One movie that was made, HBO's Emmy-winning campy drama Behind the Candelabra, featured forty-something Matt Damon as Scott Thorson, the "boy toy" of entertainer Liberace. However, Thorson has said the sexual affair with Liberace, 40 years his senior, began when he was a 17-year-old escaping an abusive father and a mentally ill mother.

During his tenure as Los Angeles's archbishop, North Hollywood-born Mahony hobnobbed with Hollywood types and politicians and was popular with many liberal leaders for his public support for farmworkers and illegal immigrants. His successor, Archbishop Jose Gomez, shares Mahony's focus on immigration reform but relieved the cardinal of his administrative and public duties.

However, Mahony remains a priest in good standing until the pope says otherwise and, in his role as cardinal, headed to Rome in March 2013 to vote in the conclave that elected Pope Francis over objections from the Catholic faithful and media.

He has frequently defended his actions in the abuse investigation (including calling himself a "scapegoat") and even used his blog to complain about Gomez's failure to raise red flags about sex-abuse policies and procedures.

While Mahony is supposed to lead a quiet life in the North Hollywood parish where he now resides and not conduct public duties, shortly after last year's conclave, he was again officiating at confirmation services for Los Angeles teens.

Lest you think he's become a hermit in the year since, Mahony is appearing on Wednesday, March 12 at St. Philomena Church in Carson, Calif., (part of the L.A. Archdiocese) to talk and do a PowerPoint presentation about his role in "Electing Pope Francis: The Miracle of the Holy Spirit," as part of a lecture series.

It's hard to find a defender of Mahony in Southern California, whether secular or Catholic. To quote a phrase heard from a priest in the region, "Wearing red is no guarantee of sanctity."


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