Mahony Ousts Priests in Sex Abuse Cases
Church sources say as many as 12 are involved. They
are quietly fired or forced to retire.
By Larry B. Stammer and William Lobdell
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers
March 4 2002
As many as a dozen Southern California priests who were involved
in past sexual abuse cases have been directed by Cardinal Roger
M. Mahony to retire or otherwise leave their ministries.
The forced retirements, which church sources said ranged from at
least half a dozen to 12 priests, were the latest repercussions
in the growing scandal of priestly sexual abuse within the Roman
Catholic Church in the U.S.
The church's Los Angeles Archdiocese made no public announcement
of the dismissals, which occurred during the last two weeks. Numerous
efforts seeking comment from officials were unsuccessful.
In a separate case, a popular Orange County priest who admitted
molesting a teenage boy 19 years ago bid farewell to his parish
Sunday. Father Michael Pecharich was asked to leave last week by
the Bishop of Orange, the Most Rev. Tod D. Brown. Pecharich's case
had been known to the church since 1996.
None of the priests in the Los Angeles Archdiocese are believed
to be involved in any recent cases of sexually abusing minors. Their
cases occurred as long as a decade ago, and all had undergone psychological
counseling, according to one of the sources.
Nonetheless, since the scandal over the sexual abuse of minors
erupted anew in the Boston archdiocese last month, dioceses across
the country, including the Diocese of Orange and Diocese of San
Bernardino, have been under increasing pressure to rid themselves
of any priests with a history of sexual misconduct.
"Boston sent a red alert," said one church source, who
asked not to be named because it would aggravate his relations with
The Catholic Church has been dogged for decades by sporadic complaints
of child molestation. But the magnitude of the Boston case and several
high-profile settlements of civil suits by the church have drawn
unusual attention. In Boston, the archdiocese was found to have
known for years about, but failed to act against, a priest who had
been accused of molesting 130 children.
As that scandal mushroomed, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston reluctantly
turned over to law enforcement officials the names of 80 priests
who had been accused of abusing children during the last 40 years.
Boston's action was soon followed by similar disclosures in Philadelphia.
In San Bernardino on Sunday, the controversy prompted Bishop Gerald
R. Barnes to write an open letter to his parishes seeking to reassure
parishioners of his diocese's long-standing policy of removing errant
priests. Barnes also spoke on behalf of "good" priests
whom he said have been unfairly tarnished by the scandal.
Legal Outlook Is Uncertain
It was unclear Sunday whether the names of any of the priests in
the Los Angeles Archdiocese--which includes Los Angeles, Ventura
and Santa Barbara counties--would be given to law enforcement authorities,
or whether any of the priests planned to appeal their dismissals.
A knowledgeable law enforcement official said it did not appear
any of the cases had been previously referred for criminal prosecution
by the archdiocese. This official could recall only one referral
of a priest for criminal prosecution for molestation in the last
several years. He said that case resulted in a conviction.
The archdiocese in past statements has promised to cooperate fully
with civil authorities and the legal system. Mahony, the archbishop
of Los Angeles, was a member of a national bishops conference committee
that recommended such steps.
Nor was it clear why the Los Angeles priests were being asked to
leave only now, since the archdiocese has had a stated policy since
1988 to "never deal with a problem of sexual abuse on the part
of a priest or deacon by simply moving him to another ministerial
Sources familiar with Mahony's actions suggested they were prompted
not only by the Boston scandal but by a 2001 court settlement in
which the Los Angeles archdiocese promised to rid itself of anyone
who had been found guilty of sexual abuse in the past, either by
an admission or in civil or church proceedings.
That case involved a victim, Ryan DiMaria, who claimed he had been
sexually abused as a teenager by a priest at a church high school.
The $5.2-million settlement, approved by the dioceses of Los Angeles
and Orange, required the church to remove any other employee found
to be guilty of sexual abuse.
DiMaria's attorney, Katherine K. Freberg of Irvine, said she was
elated by the dismissals.
"This was our very vision: that both Los Angeles and Orange
would literally go through their files and determine if they had
any priests that have molested someone, and that they get ousted,"
Freberg said. "I cannot tell you how happy this makes me--and
the way it's been played out. I see this as the culmination of all
the victims across the country banding together and saying we will
no longer live in the secrecy or tolerate the cover-up."
Of the targeted priests in the Los Angeles archdiocese, those who
are 62 or older have been asked to retire. Younger priests were
told that their status as priests was now "inactive."
Those who resided in a parish rectory or other church facility were
asked to move out.
In one case, a priest was said to have been given 72 hours to pack
his belongings and leave.
In face-to-face meetings with Mahony, the priests were also reportedly
asked to consider leaving the priesthood entirely through a process
called laicization, a step rarely taken upon retirement, a knowledgeable
church source said. They were also offered what one churchman called
a "generous" severance package.
Word of the dismissals came a week after Mahony issued a strongly
worded pastoral statement published in the archdiocesan weekly newspaper
in which he reiterated a "zero tolerance" policy when
it comes to sexual abuse of a minor.
Mahony promised that the archdiocese "will not knowingly assign
or retain a priest, deacon, religious or layperson to serve in its
parishes, schools, pastoral ministries, or any other assignment
when such an individual is determined to have previously engaged
in the sexual abuse of a minor."
The problem of child sexual abuse by priests threatens not only
the church's credibility but its finances. Various estimates by
legal experts have suggested the church had paid out hundreds of
millions in settlements over the years. The $5.2-million settlement
in DiMaria's case last year in Orange County is believed to be the
largest sum involving a single individual.
One church source noted that if Mahony were accused of failing
to abide by the terms of the DiMaria settlement, his diocese would
"If he were accused of anything, his pockets are the deepest.
He owns everything," the source said. "Now the archbishop
is able to answer unequivocally when asked 'are you keeping any
sexually abusing priests in your archdiocese?' that the answer is
an unequivocal no."
Mahony Voiced Concern to Peers
Mahony became archbishop in 1986, two years before the archdiocese
said it adopted a sexual abuse policy. In 1992, Mahony publicly
expressed concern about clergy sexual abuse during a meeting of
the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, then known as the National
Conference of Catholic Bishops. Meeting in Washington, the bishops
conference hotel was picketed by individuals who said they had been
sexually abused as minors by priests. The issue was not on the bishops'
agenda, but they quickly consented to a private meeting led by Mahony.
"These were good people who have been deeply wounded by the
misconduct of some of our priests," Mahony said in reporting
back to the bishops in unscheduled public remarks. "These were
people whose faith has been shattered and in some cases lost."
The bishops then voted unanimously to step up efforts to remain
vigilant against sexual abuse, but victims complained then that
the pledge was inadequate.
As recently as last month, the president of the bishops conference,
the Most Rev. Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., renewed the
pledge by U.S. bishops to "continue to take all the steps necessary
to protect our youth from this kind of abuse in society and in the
Gregory said the church was confident that "few" of the
nation's 47,000 priests were involved in such conduct. "The
damage, however, has been immeasurable. The toll this phenomenon
has taken on our people and our ministry is tremendous. This is
a time for Catholic people--bishops, clergy, religious and laity--to
resolve to work together to assure the safety of our children,"
As part of Gregory's statement, the bishops conference announced
an Internet site that details church policies and actions taken
to fight sexual abuse. That site is www.usccb.org/comm/restore trust.htm.
How that will play out, however, is a difficult question as individual
bishops work to address the injury to and needs of victims and their
families, and to care for accused priests.
In Los Angeles, one church source said the ousters suggested the
archdiocese had stopped dealing with priest molestation as a treatable
mental health problem.
"The mental health model is being set aside and the criminal-justice
model is being inserted. So all you have for these priests is a
retribution model," the source said. "My fear is the church
is going from being careless in treating abused children to being
careless in treating abusing priests," the churchman said.
_ _ _
Times staff writers Rosemary McClure and Greg Krikorian contributed
to this report.