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D.A. Steve Cooley Says He'll Take His Investigation of Cardinal Mahony's Pedo-Priests "Wherever it leads."

July 11, 2002
By Ron Russell, New Times L.A.
©2002 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.

If Cardinal Roger M. Mahony had hoped that the priestly sex-abuse scandal afflicting the Los Angeles Archdiocese might have blown over by now, he's bound to be disappointed with the latest pronouncements of L.A. County district attorney Steve Cooley.

In his first detailed interview on the subject since the scandal broke in early March, Cooley tells New Times that his office intends to go beyond merely prosecuting a few priests accused of abusing children to pursue criminal misconduct within the nation's largest Roman Catholic Archdiocese "wherever it leads." Asked if that means Mahony himself may conceivably become the target of a criminal probe, the district attorney pointedly replies, "No one is above the law."

Calling the burgeoning investigation of L.A. pedo-priests "unprecedented" and "uniquely challenging," Cooley -- who has been criticized for moving too slowly to force Mahony to cooperate with law enforcement -- has set up a special team of prosecutors devoted exclusively to the scandal.

It is headed by veteran deputy district attorney William Hodgman, who oversees the D.A.'s sex crimes unit.

Although Cooley declined to speculate about how many current and former priests within the sprawling archdiocese -- which includes Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties -- may ultimately be caught up in the scandal, he pledged to bring guilty clerics and those who criminally protect them to justice "whether the number turns out to be in the single digits, double digits or triple digits."

And to underscore his point, he suggested that his own prosecution of a San Fernando Valley priest for child molestation in the early 1990s be viewed as "the model" for his determination to let the chips fall where they may in dealing with the current crisis. As a deputy to former D.A. Gil Garcetti, Cooley rejected a plea arrangement that would have let Father Richard Allen Henry off the hook lightly after he was accused of molesting four boys from the same family. Henry was convicted and sent to prison, becoming the first and only Roman Catholic cleric in Los Angeles to serve time behind bars for molesting children. "If people want an indication of how I will respond when the evidence is there, they should look at [the Henry] case," Cooley says.

"We intend to be thorough and cautious. We want to make sure the evidence we gather is not suppressed [in court]," he says. And in a rebuttal to critics -- cops among them -- he says his office has coordinated information not only with the dozens of law enforcement agencies within the boundaries of the archdiocese, but "has for some time shared information with other agencies throughout California. We've been out front on this. I'm proud of what we've done. But we're only at the beginning of a very long and detailed investigatory process."

A New Times survey of dozens of law enforcement agencies within the three counties that make up the archdiocese reveals that at least 72 -- and likely more than 100 -- current or former priests are under suspicion in at least 142 cases of suspected abuse, and the number of cases is increasing almost daily. Such statistics already place L.A. on a plane with the Boston Archdiocese, where authorities are investigating about 200 abuse cases involving nearly 100 priests.

Yet even as the number of cases being reported to law enforcement via telephone hot lines has mushroomed in recent weeks, Mahony has stonewalled authorities while claiming to cooperate with them. It wasn't until June 18 -- three and a half months after Cooley first ordered Mahony to turn over documents pertaining to accused pedo-priests -- that the archdiocese finally surrendered its first scrap of paper to law enforcement. And that was only after the D.A. made good on his threats to have the L.A. County grand jury force the cardinal's hand with a subpoena. The documents released so far relate to only three of the dozens of priests under investigation.

Whether the documents are of any use to investigators -- or for that matter whether the cops are allowed to examine them -- remains unresolved. That's because Donald Steier, a lawyer for the three priests, has gone to court to keep the records under seal. A judge's decision on the matter, which could come any day, looms large. It is widely expected that lawyers for many if not all of the accused priests may similarly fight to keep the clerics' files out of investigators' hands.

The three priests whose records were turned over are all under investigation by the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. Once the issue of whether their personnel files and other records may be used by investigators is resolved, authorities are expected to move swiftly to seek the records of other clerics being investigated.

Two of the priests are longtime close friends of Mahony whom the cardinal shuffled to new assignments long after he knew they were pedophiles. Father Michael Baker was jettisoned by Mahony in 1999 after abusing numerous young men during more than a decade after Mahony welcomed him back to the fold, despite Baker's confessed abuse of three boys in the mid-1980s.

Mahony similarly reassigned Father Michael Wempe, a former classmate of Mahony's at St. John's Seminary College in Camarillo, as a chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center without bothering to tell hospital officials that he was a pedophile. The third cleric, Father David Granadino, was relieved of his duties in May after abuse allegations were leveled against him at a parish in the San Gabriel Valley suburb of Azusa.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests