LOS ANGELES — In 2007, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to pay out a reported $660 million to about 500 plaintiffs who alleged that they had been abused by Catholic priests.
Now, more than five years later, the local Church’s grim history of clergy sexual abuse is back in the news with the release of personnel files of 14 accused sexual predators dating back to the mid-'80s; the contents of at least 75 additional personnel files will be published in the weeks ahead.
The confidential files were made available to the public under the terms of the 2007 civil settlement. The documents reveal that Cardinal Roger Mahony, the retired archbishop of Los Angeles, and his then-vicar of clergy were aware that some priests had sexually abused minors and, at least in some cases, the two expressed concern that the perpetrators might face legal consequences. The documents expose serious insufficiencies in the Church’s past efforts to keep such priests away from children without removing them from ministry or making their records public.
The picture revealed in interactive news stories with embedded links to the original documents provides a disturbing, if incomplete, portrait of Church authorities, decades ago, engaged in what the Los Angeles Times calls a “concerted effort to hide abuse from police.”
In a July 22, 1986, letter cited in a Jan. 21 article, then-Archbishop Mahony expressed concern that the return of a priest known to have molested undocumented children might prompt “legal action.”
“I believe that if Msgr. Garcia were to reappear here within the archdiocese we might very well have some type of legal action filed in both the criminal and civil sectors,” said Archbishop Mahony in a letter to an out-of-state facility where Msgr. Garcia was receiving treatment.
The names of deceased and living priests accused of child sexual abuse have already been disclosed in reports posted on the archdiocesan website. However, the names of Church officials who handled the cases are now fully accessible after redactions were removed following a ruling last month. Readers can access specific documents that chart the efforts of Archbishop Mahony, who became a cardinal in 1991 and retired in 2011, and his vicar of clergy, Msgr. Thomas Curry, now a Los Angeles auxiliary bishop, to monitor the progress of the priests under scrutiny.
The fresh headlines about cases dating back to the mid-1980s have revived demands that Cardinal Mahony and other Church leaders who failed to protect minors should be held accountable and face criminal prosecution. However, legal experts have noted that Church authorities were not required by law to report such accusations at that time and that the statute of limitations bars criminal prosecution.
The recent media coverage provides a painful reminder of the record of failure that led the U.S. bishops to approve, in 2002, the “zero tolerance” policy of removing from ministry all priests with credible accusations of child sexual abuse and promptly contacting law enforcement when allegations are brought to Church authorities. The Los Angeles Times reported that, in “a 2010 deposition, Mahony acknowledged the archdiocese had never called police to report sexual abuse by a priest before 2000.”
Both Cardinal Mahony and auxiliary Bishop Curry issued statements of apology for their past failures of judgment.
The Los Angeles Archdiocese’s lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.
The documents from the personnel files dating back to the mid-1980s show that quiet efforts to restrict contact with children could not be fully enforced and left minors vulnerable to predators in a position of trust.
In 2004, the Los Angeles Archdiocese issued a report that, in part, sought to explain why it had failed in previous decades to protect children from sexual predators.
“Our understandings were more limited in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. Experiences of personal violation were not as easily revealed to others. There was concern in families and in the Church for the privacy of victims, motivated by the conviction that actions that might disclose their painful experiences would produce intolerable suffering,” stated the 2004 “Report to the People of God.”
In the report, local Church authorities also repeated their pledge to fully enforce the U.S. bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, released in 2002, which requires prompt reporting of allegations to local law enforcement, a policy of zero tolerance for priests credibly accused of abuse and “safe environment” training for children and all Church employees and volunteers working with minors.
But documents culled from the personnel file of Msgr. Peter Garcia, a diocesan priest with an admitted history of abusing minors dating back to his 1966 ordination, show Church leaders handling abuse in a disturbingly different manner.
In a November 1987 letter to Archbishop Mahony, Msgr. Curry acknowledged the scope of Father Garcia’s criminal behavior, but made no suggestion that he should be reported to the police.
“[T]here are numerous — maybe 20 — adolescents or young adults that Peter was involved with in a first-degree felony manner. The possibility of one of these seeing him is simply too great,” wrote Msgr. Curry, expressing concern about the possible ramifications of Father Garcia returning to the archdiocese following his treatment.
Within two years, Father Garcia had left the priesthood, and he never faced criminal prosecution before his death. But Father Garcia’s personnel file also includes a letter from a local priest who was appalled that Church administrators had failed to aid the children harmed by Father Garcia and at times seemed “more concern[ed] for the criminal.”
Cardinal Mahony was named archbishop of Los Angeles in 1985, and Church records show that he was intimately involved in monitoring troubled priests and did act to remove some credibly accused priests before and after he took up his duties in Los Angeles. The personnel files do not explain how every case was decided, but they do underscore the problems of an ad hoc approach to dealing with clerical predators.
The Father Baker Case
One of the most tragic stories is Father Michael Baker, a laicized priest now serving time for sexually abusing minors.
The priest’s case was explicitly addressed in the archdiocese’s 2004 report, which, in addition to offering an explanation of the context of historic cases, listed information about past clerical abusers.
In 1986, Father Baker had disclosed his sexual misconduct to Cardinal Mahony and subsequently received a psychological evaluation and ongoing therapy in an out-of-state residential program. He was allowed to return to restricted ministry in local parishes and later was permitted to fill in for absent pastors without any notification of his past sexual contact with minors.
“Cardinal Mahony has publicly admitted his misjudgment in handling this case and has apologized for allowing Father Baker to remain in ministry. The cardinal admitted that he placed too much reliance on Father Baker’s perceived good faith in self-reporting and was far too lenient in permitting him to continue in assignments despite the boundary violations. This case brought to the attention of the archdiocese that placing a person in a restricted ministry was not sufficient to prevent future abuse. The lesson is that either much closer monitoring is needed, which is practically impossible, or the priest must be removed from ministry,” the 2004 archdiocesan report stated.
In 2005, a timeline of Father Baker’s ministry in Los Angeles was posted on the archdiocese’s website. The timeline notes Dec. 22, 1986, as the date he first met with “Cardinal Mahony and Vicar for Clergy Msgr. Curry to discuss his relationship with two boys from 1978 to 1985.”
Over the next decade, the timeline marks three separate meetings between the vicar and Father Baker to discuss “breaches” in his agreement to stay away from children, following his evaluation and treatment. It is noted that the observed contact was “non-sexual” in nature.
Then, an April 2000 entry points to the “first complaint by a victim” forwarded by an attorney. Two weeks later, Father Baker was removed from ministry; he was laicized by the end of the year.
However, a Jan. 21 Los Angeles Times story offers a more complete, if disturbing, picture of how Church authorities handled this case. The Times’ story cites a June 1987 memo to Archbishop Mahony from Msgr. Curry, which noted that Father Baker was slated to return from the residential therapeutic program and was expected to continue therapy. However, the vicar for clergy expressed concern that Father Baker’s new therapist would learn of his past misdeeds and contact the authorities.
In 2007, Baker would plead guilty to criminal child sexual abuse, and the Los Angeles Times story cites unidentified local authorities who “believe that Baker molested at least 23 boys in his 26 years as a priest.”
While some official timelines of accused priests offer few details of any oversight by Church authorities and others point to prompt action following credible accusations, Baker’s case offers a stark reminder that Church officials once sought to cobble together policies designed to protect priests from criminal prosecution while limiting their contact with children.
New Protections Instituted
The zero-tolerance policy subsequently instituted by the U.S. bishops has been criticized by some as unjust to falsely accused priests, but Father Baker’s story reveals that even when a troubled priest has contacted his bishop to seek help, the high rate of recidivism for sexual predators means that they cannot be trusted in active ministry. Further, when their supervising pastor was directed to “police” their movements, there was still no guarantee that children could be effectively protected.
The archdiocese’s 2004 report confirmed: “Now, all credible allegations involving living clergy are reported in writing to law enforcement by the archdiocese, whether or not the victim is now a minor and whether or not the victim or his or her parents have made a report. No offense will be hidden.”
Since 2004, the Los Angeles Archdiocese has been found in full compliance with the Dallas Charter in every audit of its archdiocesan implementation. The archdiocese has reported that in recent years nearly 200,000 clergy, teachers, parish employees, parents and volunteers have received safe-environment training, and more than 120,000 employees or volunteers who work with children have had background checks, including fingerprinting.
In a statement released Jan. 22, the archdiocese repeated its earlier pledge to report all credible allegations of sexual abuse, as the local Church steeled itself for a continuing cascade of damaging disclosures as additional court documents from the civil proceedings are published.
“The past cannot be changed, but we have learned from it. … [W]e remain vigilant against all that would harm our children and young people.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.