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L.A. Panel of Priests Endorses Mahony

By William Lobdell, Times Staff Writer
March 27, 2004

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, recently criticized by a national Catholic panel for his legal tactics in sexual abuse cases, received a vote of confidence this week from the Los Angeles Council of Priests, an elected body representing the Roman Catholic archdiocese's 850 clergymen.

In a resolution passed unanimously earlier this week, the council praised Mahony for consistently showing "great concern for the protection of children" and for fighting to preserve secrecy on personnel files of priests suspected of child sexual abuse.

"Cardinal Mahony has shown a consistent desire to protect children, while at the same time has been solicitous that no priest's reputation be ruined by irresponsible or utterly unsubstantiated allegations," according to the resolution that was sent to each cleric in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

The clergy's show of support is an important victory for Mahony, who has been chastised nationally by a wide range of critics for his handling of molestation cases.

When 58 Boston-area priests signed a letter calling for Cardinal Bernard Law's resignation in December 2002, the prelate stepped down three days later.

Father Timothy E. Nichols, head of the Los Angeles council whose 20 members are elected by archdiocesan clerics, said the resolution was initiated by priests concerned with the increasing criticism of the cardinal. Mahony, who is formally the council's president, did not ask for the vote and was not present during the discussion, he said.

"We felt it was time to take a position to stand with him and behind him," said Nichols, pastor of St. John Vianney Catholic Church in Hacienda Heights.

A spokesman for Mahony said the cardinal had no comment.

The archdiocese is facing lawsuits by about 500 people who said they were molested by 225 Los Angeles priests. The Los Angeles County district attorney's office is conducting a criminal investigation that it says is being hampered by Mahony's lack of cooperation.

The vote of confidence angered victims' advocates and others who said it was the latest evidence of the deep-seated culture of secrecy and coverups within the Catholic Church.

"Boy, that's depressing," said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests. "But I guess it shouldn't be surprising. In a medieval culture, you swear loyalty to the king. It reflects a real culture of timidity."

Richard Sipe, a former priest and an expert on sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, said the vote was significant because "it implicates all of them on the priests' council in whatever Mahony's done."

Mahony, the head of the largest diocese in the United States, has come under increasing fire since an independent Catholic review board sharply criticized him last month. The board denounced the legal tactics Mahony has used to preserve the secrecy of thousands of pages of internal documents related to the sexual abuse of minors.

Scholars and legal experts say Mahony has invented the "formation privilege," a legal argument that would require that sensitive communications between a bishop and his priests — including documents relating to molestation by clerics — be kept confidential. There is no such privilege in canon, or church, law.

Church officials concede that the files sought by prosecutors and attorneys for alleged victims include evidence that Mahony and other church leaders improperly handled some cases involving abusive priests.

Mahony has admitted having kept priests in the ministry whose records included credible allegations of sexual abuse. Three of those whom the cardinal kept on the job allegedly committed additional acts of sexual abuse or had "boundary violations" with 10 children, according to a report issued by the archdiocese last month. By February 2002, those priests had been retired or removed from ministry.

Through a spokesman, Mahony has declined to say whether the release of documents would reveal further errors he made in dealing with sexual abuse by priests. Critics of the prelate believe that if the documents were made public, Mahony's leadership would be hobbled, much like Cardinal Law's was in Boston.

In civil and criminal cases, the archdiocese has kept internal documents related to sexual abuse incidents secret for a year and a half while waiting for a court ruling on whether they can be released.

In the interim, church officials have handed the requested documents to the judge reviewing the privilege arguments.

The files could include items such as notes by the cardinal or church investigators on their conversations with victims, witnesses and accused priests; psychological evaluations of alleged abusers ordered by the church; letters about priests' conduct; and assessments by supervisors.

Judges in Massachusetts, Arizona, Iowa and Kentucky have ordered dioceses to release similar documents after finding that the dioceses could not seek immunity under the 1st Amendment. Others dioceses, such as those on Long Island, N.Y., and in Manchester, N.H., have voluntarily turned over boxes of priests' personnel files to local grand juries.

Nichols, head of the priests' council, said it is critical to protect the sanctity of communications between a bishop and his priests, a relationship similar to a father and son.

"The bishop is a confidant," Nichols said. "He is someone you can share a struggle or difficulty with and not have it exposed to everyone else."

The priests' resolution also questioned the conclusions by the U.S. bishops' National Review Board, which called Los Angeles a troubled diocese in which Mahony had "allowed numerous predator priests to remain in ministry."

"We disagree with the attitude that equates 'transparency and cooperation' with the assumption that the actions of government authorities may not be questioned," the resolution said. "The board reached these conclusions in secret without providing Cardinal Mahony and the archdiocese an opportunity for a fair hearing and defense."

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Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
www.snapnetwork.org

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