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Mahony's Mea Culpas Not Very Convincing

Steve Lopez - Los Angeles Times
February 18, 2004

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony had me worried for a while. The leader of the Los Angeles Archdiocese was keeping such a low profile at the Rog Mahal, I thought maybe he'd lost his knack for damage control.

Not to worry. Turns out he's still the king.

Mahony has done us all the favor of releasing a self-assessment called "Report to the People of God," which names 211 priests and other church employees who have been accused of molesting 656 minors since 1931.

In a grave preface, Mahony apologizes to victims, acknowledges his own mistakes and promises "to do all in my power to prevent sexual abuse by anyone serving our archdiocese now and in the future."

The document is a beautiful piece of work, because to those who want to believe, it resembles a staggering breakthrough in truth-telling.

But this may be the wrong place for "People of God" to put their faith.

For starters, every one of the 211 names of the accused had already been made public. The names of another 33 accused priests were withheld because the accusations hadn't been checked out yet, or were deemed unreliable by the archdiocese.

By the archdiocese?

I thought the problem all along was that the archdiocese couldn't be trusted to expose its dirty secrets.

The good cardinal himself has spent nearly two years fighting the release of documents to Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who is still trying to get to the bottom of the scandal.

As Cooley told me Tuesday, all he wants is to convict child molesters and their protectors, and all he gets from Mahony are roadblocks.

"It's really been a battle royal," says Cooley. "You've got the largest prosecutorial agency in the United States of America slugging it out in court for more than 20 months with the largest archdiocese in the country."

I asked Cooley, a good Catholic boy, if he had any idea why Mahony would insist on keeping those documents under lock and key.

"It may be far more revealing than … what people have speculated about," Cooley said. "That would be the most reasonable motive to continue the cover-up."

Cooley's other guess is that Mahony may be anticipating a blistering review of his leadership by the National Review Board, whose report on the national scandal is due later this month. Perhaps the cardinal figured that from a public relations standpoint, a slap of his own wrist today will take some sting out of the clobbering he might take tomorrow.

But Mahony's mea culpas aren't terribly convincing. The report by the archdiocese offers the usual long-winded defenses, namely, that until the last 15 years or so, very little was known about molestation, the extent of the problem in the church and the best way to treat perpetrators and victims.

There's some truth in all of that, and a lot of hooey, too.

I don't care whether it's 1950, 1975 or 2004. If you don't know what to do about a priest pushing himself on a defenseless child, you shouldn't be wearing a collar, let alone running a diocese. It's as simple as this: A) Call the police; B) Comfort and treat the victim; C) Excommunicate the priest; and D) Fire anybody who knew about it and kept quiet.

Richard Sipe, a retired priest who testifies in molestation cases, has often hammered the same point in my conversations with him: The problem wasn't the small percentage of bad priests, but the large percentage of church leaders whose unconscionable sin was to keep a lid on scandal, protecting themselves rather than the victims of known predators.

One reason for the decades of silence, Sipe insisted, was that scandal had always reached into the top tiers of church hierarchy. So it comes as no surprise that the list of 211 accused molesters in the L.A. Archdiocese includes two former auxiliary bishops and a monsignor who was chief financial officer.

Then there's Msgr. Richard A. Loomis, who stepped down last week as pastor of a San Marino parish following accusations against him. And what did Loomis do before his assignment in San Marino?

He was Mahony's vicar general, overseeing sex abuse allegations.

"Anyone who ran another organization like this would have been fired long ago," says Ryan DiMaria, a former abuse victim who is now an attorney representing 25 people with claims against the Los Angeles archdiocese.

Kathy Freberg, an Irvine attorney with 101 clients who have sued the L.A. Archdiocese, chortled when she came to a soul-searching passage in the "People of God" report. It said the church needed to "examine its conscience" to figure out "to what extent" a fear of public scandal "may have been a motive" for the code of silence.

Gee, Father McFeely. You really think that could have been a motive?

"It's infuriating," Freberg said. "The church is painting a picture of spending 20 years trying to figure out what to do with pedophiles. But when you litigate these cases and get into the records, you see that all they were intent on doing was covering up."

Sure, Mahony may have learned from his mistakes and ushered in reforms, but he accepts too little blame for the former and too much credit for the latter.

This is the cardinal who personally reassigned two priests accused of molestation only to have them prey on more victims. This is the cardinal who teed off on former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, the church's National Review Board chief who made the mistake of getting too close to the truth.

"To act like La Cosa Nostra and hide and suppress, I think, is very unhealthy," Keating said of Catholic leaders.

Within days, Keating had "resigned." It was a hit the mob would have been proud of.


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests