Mahony Resources – December 2002
By Laurie Goodstein
Los Angeles, December 3 — This Sunday at Mass in California's 1,100 Roman Catholic Churches, priests will read an ominous letter from the state's bishops warning parishioners that their dioceses are about to be hit by an onslaught of sexual abuse lawsuits that could threaten the assets of church schools, parishes and charities.
The bishops' letter is the church's opening counterattack against a little-noticed law passed by the California Legislature that lifts the statute of limitations on sexual abuse lawsuits for one year, starting Jan. 1, 2003. The law allows plaintiffs to sue churches or other institutions, like hospitals or schools, that knowingly permitted molesters to have access to children or minors.
When the law passed the state legislature unanimously last June, at the height of the outrage over the sexual abuse scandal, California's bishops decided not to lobby against it. But now they are mounting an aggressive campaign to convince Catholics that their church is under attack by trial lawyers greedy for the church's money.
"There is a gold rush to get into the priest litigation business," said Maurice Healy, director of communications for the Archdiocese of San Francisco. "While trial attorneys may want to portray the church as a large corporate villain with deep pockets, the resources of the church are not infinite, and come from the people in the parishes."
The newspaper of the San Francisco Archdiocese, mailed to Catholics throughout Northern California, will run an article this week with the headline, "Lawyers Aggressively Seek Sex Abuse Business."
While many states have recently eased criminal and civil statutes of limitations on sexual abuse cases, legal experts and victims advocates say they know of no other state with a law as favorable to victims as California. They say the new law, which applies only to civil cases, could make California's courts the next major battleground in the priest sexual abuse scandal.
Lawyers for plaintiffs said in interviews that they are preparing at least 400 lawsuits against California dioceses. They said they anticipated more on behalf of clients who could not sue before because the abuse they say occurred was many years, even decades, ago.
"This law has literally changed their lives," said Katherine K. Freberg, a lawyer in Irvine. "I've seen a transformation in clients who felt like they had no control, no options and that in essence the perpetrator won again. This law has given them hope."
Mary Grant, who won a settlement of a sexual abuse case she brought in 1991 and now works for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, SNAP, said that she was trying to telephone all 400 Californians on a list of those who had contacted the organization over the last 10 years to tell them about the new law. She is working from a desk at a Beverly Hills law firm, Kiesel, Boucher & Larson, which has handled many sexual abuse cases.
While the Archdiocese of Boston, also besieged by lawsuits, which have already cost it about $50 million, announced this week that it might declare bankruptcy, the California bishops have not said that they would move in that direction. But in their letter and in other church communications, they imply that the church's people and good works are at risk from the anticipated wave of lawsuits.
"The Catholic church has been falsely portrayed as a large corporation with `deep pockets,' " the bishops' letter says. "In reality, the vast majority of Catholic assets belong to the people of our parishes, schools, charities and other institutions."
The letter, which many bishops will personally read to parishioners in churches this weekend, says that the church has taken many steps to prevent sexual abuse and that the law is unfair. It says: "Some of the lawsuits may involve the revival of already settled cases and some may involve alleged perpetrators and witnesses long since dead. Under those circumstances it will be difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain the truth."
Raymond Boucher, a lawyer who has handled many cases against the church, denounced the bishops' letter as a "repulsive and shameless" legal tactic.
"It's a public relations ploy attempting to play on the guilt of Catholics in the hopes they will suppress victims from coming forward and filing claims," Mr. Boucher said in an interview. "I'm going to be in church on Sunday and I plan to stand up and turn my back when they read that letter."
SNAP said on Thursday that it plans to distribute an alternative letter to parishioners on Sunday written by the mother of a molestation victim in Kansas who committed suicide.
The California law waiving the statute of limitations for a year was drafted in part by Laurence E. Drivon, a Stockton lawyer who has won millions of dollars in sexual abuse claims against the church. Mr. Drivon had access to California legislators, he said, because he had been doing pro bono work for the state government on the Enron case.
He said that he and Jeffrey Anderson, a Minneapolis lawyer who has brought hundreds of cases against the Catholic Church around the country, had long wanted to find a way to get around the statute of limitations that they felt had allowed the church to hide so many priest abusers.
He said that he and Mr. Anderson took a group of clients from Oxnard, most Hispanic, to meet with State Senator Martha Escutia of Montebello, chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "She was blown away by their testimony," Mr. Drivon said."The crisis was in a fulminating state, and she said, `Yeah, we're going to do something"' about the statute of limitations.
California's law had required that lawsuits against the church or other organizations that knowingly employed sexual abusers had to be filed by the time the plaintiff was 26. The new law waives that limitation for 2003, and allowed people whose lawsuits were previously dismissed on the grounds of statute of limitations to refile.
The legislation, co-sponsored by Ms. Escutia and State Senator John Burton of San Francisco, both Democrats and both Catholics, was passed unanimously by both houses in June. It was signed into law by the governor on July 11. No one lobbied against it, said Gary Wong, chief counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in Sacramento.
J. Michael Hennigan, a lawyer for the Archidiocese of Los Angeles, said, "I think we perceived that the speed with which it was being enacted, and the emotional environment in the legislature, was such that the church was impotent and wasn't going to be able to change a word."
Mr. Hennigan said the Los Angeles Archdiocese was examining ways of mounting a legal challenge the law next year. He said he had identified several possible arguments: the legislature does not have the constitutional power to reopen final judgments of the courts; the law violates due process; and it discriminates against the Catholic Church.
Mr. Burton said in an interview that the law was not directed at "the holy Roman Catholic Church," but said it ought to be held accountable for reassigning predator priests to work with children.
"It could be fairly costly," Mr. Burton said of his legislation's impact, "but instead of closing parishes and shutting down social service programs, maybe the Holy See could part with some of its treasures."
Michael Falls is one of 11 people whose lawsuit claiming abuse by the Rev. Theodore Llanos was dismissed in 1999 by the California Supreme Court because it fell outside the statute of limitations, his lawyer, Ms. Freberg, said. She said she plans to refile that lawsuit again in January.
Father Llanos committed suicide in 1997, but Mr. Falls said he was still waiting for the church to be held accountable, and to pay for his therapy and his suffering. He said he hoped the new law would make that happen.
"I have a lot of hope," Mr. Falls said in an interview. "But I truly wouldn't be surprised if somehow they were able to squirm out of it. They have unlimited resources."
By Paul Wilborn
After months of apologies from Catholic officials, priests in California are suggesting that some attempts to atone for the church's handling of past sexual abuse allegations go too far.
A letter drafted by the state's 12 Catholic bishops is warning parishioners about a new law that would lift the statute of limitations on the filing of molestation lawsuits for one year beginning Jan. 1. The missive was read to parishioners during masses throughout California on Sunday.
Bishops warned the statute, which was adopted by the California Legislature in June, will bring a flood of multimillion dollar lawsuits, putting additional financial pressure on archdioceses and threatening the church's ability to meet its spiritual and charitable objectives.
"The Catholic church has been falsely portrayed as a large corporation with `deep pockets,"' the letter said. "In reality, the vast majority of Catholic assets belong to the people of our parishes, schools, charities and other institutions."
Church officials intend to contest the new law in court. In the letter, the bishops wrote that while they "stand ready to respond to legitimate claims by victims of abuse," they believe the law would open the door to fruitless, and in some cases frivolous, lawsuits.
"Some of the lawsuits may involve the revival of already settled cases and some may involve alleged perpetrators and witnesses long since dead," the letter said. "Under those circumstances, it will be difficult, if not impossible to ascertain the truth."
Under current law, victims of childhood sexual abuse have to file lawsuits by their 26th birthday or within three years of discovering emotional problems linked to a childhood molestation.
The new law would lift those restrictions in cases against churches or other institutions that continued to employ known molesters who went on to abuse other victims. The lawsuits would have to be filed in 2003.
In Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony read the correspondence to thousands of parishioners at the city's new downtown cathedral. Many applauded after he finished.
But several parishioners said the church should not balk at paying damages to victims of sexual abuse.
"I think what they need to do now is pay and apologize," said Ben Carlo, who attended mass with his wife and 5-year-old son.
Outside the cathedral, about 10 protesters representing sexual abuse victims said the bishops should support the new law, not challenge it.
"We think it's inappropriate, especially in view of the terrible revelations in Boston," said Mary Jane McGraw, referring to the release last week of documents describing sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese.
In San Francisco, parishioners at Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption received a copy of the letter inside the day's program. "At least the church is conscious about it. I think it's important to recognize the mistake, not just sweep it under the rug," Alex Liu said as he left the cathedral.
The letter was sparked by concerns that a new wave of lawsuits would be so expensive that key educational and social services will have to be curtailed. Budget problems have already forced the Los Angeles archdiocese to make $4.3 million in program cuts and layoffs.
The message read to Catholic parishioners did pledge that the church would seek to help victims of abuse. It also pointed out that in the past year, U.S. bishops have adopted a number of reforms, including working with parishes in the reporting of sex abuse allegations to authorities and removing abusive priests.
By Teresa Watanabe
Despite this year's sex abuse scandals and economic downturn, parishioners in the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles have pledged $16 million to aid their needy parishes and schools -- the highest figure in the annual fund-raising campaign's 10-year history.
The results from the Together in Mission campaign, published in the archdiocesan newspaper and distributed to parishioners Sunday, represents the first measure of whether the clergy sex abuse scandals, archdiocesan financial problems and other negative news have affected donations here.
Though some parishes have reported drops in their Sunday collections, the archdiocese-wide appeal for the poor set records both for the total amount pledged and the number of donors, which increased to 106,161 this year, according to spokesman Tod Tamberg.
"Given today's economic realities and negative headlines, the triumph of this year's Together in Mission brings me more gratification than ever, because you looked past those headlines and into your generous and blessed hearts," Cardinal Roger M. Mahony wrote in a letter to parishioners announcing the results.
As of Monday, the archdiocese had collected $13.8 million, or 86.2% of pledges, Tamberg said. That compares with $13.7 million, or 88%, at this time last year. The campaign usually collects 90% by year's end, he said.
Parish pledges ranged from $1,220 at Immaculate Conception in the tiny Santa Barbara County town of New Cuyama to $248,402 at St. Monica in Santa Monica. St. Monica parish administrator Mike Mottola said the church had so far collected more this year than last for the fund, although its Sunday collections were down 10% compared with last year's. It was the first decline in more than five years, he said.
Some parishes, however, reported falling short of their pledges. The drive began in January just as the sex scandals were breaking in Boston. Father Stan Bosch, pastor at Our Lady of Victory and Sagrado Corazon parishes in Compton, said collections were running a few thousand dollars behind pledges for the first time in four years.
"For a lot of people it's the economy," Bosch said. "Other people are still suspicious that money raised from independent sources is going for sex abuse lawsuits or the cathedral."
Tamberg said, however, that the mission fund is strictly controlled and is used only to help subsidize 44 needy schools and 33 parishes.
Mahony launched the annual campaign not only to share resources between rich and poor parishes, but to connect congregations too. St. Mel in Woodland Hills and Our Lady of Victory in Compton, for instance, have established sister-church ties in which they've swapped visits of parish councils and choirs. One year, Bosch said, St. Mel offered $45,000 in surplus mission funds to Our Lady of Victory.
By Pamela Ferdinand and Alan Cooperman
MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Within hours of Cardinal Bernard F. Law's resignation on Dec. 13, an alleged victim of a pedophile priest stepped to the podium at a news conference in Boston and announced a new target.
"Bishop McCormack, we're coming after you," said Gary Bergeron, 40, referring to New Hampshire Bishop John B. McCormack, who was not present. "For every document I've seen with the name Bernard Law, I've seen 100 with the name Bishop McCormack."
Law is the 19th bishop worldwide, and the ninth in the United States, to step down since 1990 in the wake of sex abuse scandals. To many Roman Catholics, a natural question is: Who's next?
Law's resignation creates a "massive precedent" that has emboldened sexual abuse victims, their supporters, prosecutors and even priests to push for more resignations, said Philip Jenkins, a professor of religious studies at Penn State University who has written two books about the scandal.
"I think we're going to see rising tension between the higher and lower clergy as more and more ordinary priests organize, not just in self-defense, but to challenge their bishops," Jenkins said.
Pressure is mounting quickly on five of Law's former deputies who have received subpoenas to testify before a Massachusetts grand jury. Chief among them is McCormack, 67, who handled sexual misconduct cases in the Boston archdiocese for a decade before being promoted to bishop of Manchester in 1998. On Dec. 10, he signed an agreement acknowledging that New Hampshire's attorney general had sufficient evidence to convict his diocese of child endangerment.
But attention also is shifting to the powerful cardinals of Los Angeles and New York and to bishops in other cities, such as Phoenix and Toledo, who are up against aggressive prosecutors, hard-hitting local newspapers and restive clergy.
Some victim activists have misgivings about demanding the resignations of particular bishops. David Clohessy, executive director of the largest victims' group, the 4,300-member Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said it is "a dangerous strategy" that "could delude people into thinking the problem is a few bad apples."
Nonetheless, many victims in communities across the country have called on their local bishops to step down. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll, taken Dec. 12-15, also shows rising public dissatisfaction with the hierarchy's response to the scandal, even among Catholics.
More than three-quarters of the 1,209 adults in the nationwide poll, and 69 percent of the Catholics, said they disapproved of the church's handling of sexual abuse. Half of all the respondents -- and more than a third of the Catholics -- said the church "cannot be trusted" to handle the issue properly in the future.
Among the prelates under rising financial and legal pressure is Los Angeles' Cardinal Roger Mahony, who faces an onslaught of civil lawsuits in 2003 because the California legislature has lifted the statute of limitations for one year.
Having spent nearly $200 million on a new cathedral, Mahony's archdiocese now faces budget cuts. A grand jury has subpoenaed its records on 17 priests, and Mahony has been personally implicated in the case of the Rev. Michael Baker, who says he admitted to the archbishop in 1986 that he had molested several boys. Baker was sent for psychological treatment and then transferred to nine different parishes before leaving the priesthood two years ago.
Cardinal Edward Egan of New York also is under intense scrutiny for his past handling of abuse allegations. When he was bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., for example, Egan allegedly gave an accused priest $17,000 to settle bank debts and hire an attorney, the Hartford Courant has reported.
Prelates in smaller dioceses who are under pressure to step down include Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien of Phoenix. He faces a grand jury investigation by a prosecutor who has suggested that the bishop's resignation might help to avert criminal charges against church leaders.
And in the diocese of Toledo, two priests have called for Bishop James R. Hoffman to step down, particularly in light of eight lawsuits accusing the Rev. Dennis Gray of molesting numerous boys before leaving the priesthood in 1987. Although victims say they told church officials about the abuse before 1987, Gray left the priesthood with a clean record and went on to work in the Toledo public schools until this year.
One of the priests urging Hoffman to retire, the Rev. Patrick Rohen, said he is "breaking the code of silence."
"I will tell you, I fear retaliation," Rohen said. "But somebody's got to speak out on this. The whole problem is the world of secrecy and shame. In order to get beyond this denial, in places where cover-ups and incompetence have been demonstrated, those bishops should retire."
The combination of events that preceded Law's resignation -- including a subpoena for the cardinal to testify before a grand jury, the threat of bankruptcy for the archdiocese and a letter from 58 priests calling for his departure -- has not been duplicated elsewhere.
But some victim activists believe the main determinant of future resignations will be whether jurists across the county follow the example of Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney, who granted the Boston Globe's request for the release of internal church documents on sexual misconduct.
"If in other states, the files are turned over the way they were in Boston, then yeah, there will be a domino effect," said Mary Grant, head of the Los Angeles chapter of SNAP.
McCormack is on the hot seat partly because his name appears frequently in the Boston files. He served as Law's secretary for ministerial personnel from 1984 to 1994 and is a defendant in many of the suits against the Boston archdiocese. But he has also run into trouble in Manchester, a diocese that includes all of New Hampshire's 325,000 Catholics.
As recently as June, McCormack reassigned a priest to a parish even though the priest admitted having sex with a teenage boy in the 1980s and the diocese was arranging a secret financial settlement.
When the settlement was revealed, McCormack bluntly explained that he had decided to keep the Rev. Ronald P. Cote in ministry because "it was not anticipated that this would be public." Parishioners were outraged, newspapers editorialized for McCormack to resign and protesters who picketed against Law said they would begin demonstrating at St. Joseph Cathedral in Manchester.
"If you got 500 Catholics from all over the state in a room and put the question to them, I bet 400 would vote for new leadership," said Peter Flood, New Hampshire coordinator for Voice of the Faithful, a lay Catholic group that has called for structural changes in the church.
It has been a deep and sudden spiral for McCormack, who until recently was a national leader in the church's response to the scandals. He served as chairman of the U.S. bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse for two years before stepping down in April, following the disclosure that he failed to investigate complaints against the Rev. Paul R. Shanley in Boston even after Shanley publicly advocated men having sex with boys. Shanley was recently released from jail pending his trial on molestation charges.
McCormack has said he has no plans to resign as bishop. But he alluded to the precariousness of his position in a homily last Sunday, saying, "My past haunts my present and clouds my future with you in New Hampshire."
McCormack's defenders say he has dealt compassionately with both victims and perpetrators. Peter E. Hutchins, an attorney who has brought 75 sexual abuse lawsuits against the church, said the Manchester diocese under McCormack has admitted liability, waived a statute of limitations, shared information about its assets and refrained from attacking victims' truthfulness.
"We don't know all that's in the files in Boston, but if you judge him by what he's done in New Hampshire, he's been a wonderful leader," said Donna Sytek, former speaker of the state House of Representatives and head of a diocesan task force on sexual misconduct. "I truly believe he gets it. He may not have gotten it 15 years ago, but he really is committed to change."
Some victims see McCormack differently: as a bishop who repeatedly accepted the word of accused priests over the complaints of victims and their families.
Bergeron, who warned on the day of Law's resignation that the New Hampshire bishop would be next, held a news conference Friday with four other men who say they were molested in various Massachusetts parishes by the late Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham.
The men provided reporters with copies of church files showing McCormack was aware of complaints that Birmingham sexually abused children. But Birmingham nevertheless was sent to St. Ann's Parish in Gloucester in 1985 and promoted to pastor the following year.
In an April 1987 letter, McCormack reassured one parishioner who had heard Birmingham had molested boys in another parish and was worried he might pose a threat to her son, an altar boy. "I contacted Father Birmingham and asked him specifically about the matter you expressed in your letter. He assured me there is absolutely no factual basis to your concern regarding your son and him," McCormack wrote. A spokesman said the bishop was not available for comment but confirmed that McCormack had agreed to meet with the men after Christmas.
Birmingham "was having a feast on young boys," one of the alleged victims, Larry Sweeney, told reporters. "The caterers were McCormack and other bishops who knew about him and what he was doing."
Cooperman reported from Washington.
By William Lobdell
The agonies of the Roman Catholic Church, wracked by a yearlong sexual-abuse scandal, overshadowed other religion news in California in 2002, and even muted the September opening of the church's $189-million cathedral in downtown Los Angeles.
Among the stories relegated to near-footnote status this year:
A plan by Catholic bishops to better serve Spanish-speaking parishioners and bring more Latino priests into church leadership.
A legal tussle over the annual Hollywood Bowl Easter sunrise service. The evangelical Trinity Broadcasting Network of Orange County won rights to televise the service, and then withdrew in the ensuing controversy — too late for organizers to restore traditional broadcast arrangements.
A district judge's ruling in a widely watched case that temporarily barred Cypress from seizing a church's land for redevelopment.
The continued integration of the Muslim community into Southern California's interfaith movement and general society, a trend that symbolically could be seen two days before the Sept. 11 anniversary at an interreligious prayer service at the Islamic Society of Orange County mosque. American Muslim leaders honored more than 20 people outside their faith who came to their defense after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
Nationally, the Catholic Church scandal also swamped other religious news. In a vote this month by the members of the Religious Newswriters Assn., four of the year's top five stories involved sexual abuse by Catholic priests or the fallout. The fifth story was the controversy generated by Franklin Graham and other evangelical ministers who called Islam evil.
Since January — when abuse by priests in Boston and a cardinal's cover-up were first exposed — the scandal has engulfed the U.S. Catholic Church. Aggressive plaintiffs' attorneys, empowered victims and their advocates, outraged laity, an entrenched church hierarchy and a relentless news media all played roles.
The storm left in its path the resignations of Cardinal Bernard F. Law and two bishops, hundreds of lawsuits, multimillion-dollar settlements, priests in handcuffs, public apologies from prelates, new church codes of justice for victims, increased power for the laity and threats of church bankruptcy.
"Much as I tend to avoid such inflated rhetoric, any sober assessment would rank it as the greatest scandal in the history of the American Catholic Church," said Father John Coleman, a professor of theological studies and social values at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
In California, the impact of the scandal could become stronger starting this week. A new state law takes effect Wednesday that will temporarily lift the statute of limitations on many lawsuits against the church. Lawyers for the 12 archdioceses in the state say they expect hundreds of suits to be filed.
Southern California has already been among the regions hit hardest by the scandal.
In early March, word leaked that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles had quietly acted on a court-imposed zero-tolerance policy and let go seven priests with molestations in their past. Two were convicted sex offenders. The Diocese of Orange fired one priest.
The revelations about the ousted priests triggered a months-long tug-of-war between Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and law enforcement officials over church personnel records.
Part of the church's behind-the-scenes struggle with the tangle of legal issues was revealed in April when a series of confidential e-mails written by Mahony and others within his inner circle were leaked to radio station KFI.
In the communications, church leaders worried about the public relations fallout of the scandal advised Mahony to remain vague about where the seven priests served before they were fired, and gave instructions to limit responses to police queries.
One e-mail showed tension between Mahony and his advisors. The cardinal was so upset by the failure to turn over the names of several dismissed priests to police that he warned his general counsel he might be subpoenaed.
"If we don't, today, 'consult' with the [detective] about those three names, I can guarantee you that I will get hauled into a grand jury proceeding and I will be forced to give all the names, etc.," Mahony wrote to his top lawyer, Sister Judith Murphy.
Also contained in one of the e-mails was news that authorities were investigating a claim by a Fresno woman with a history of mental problems that Mahony had molested her many years ago. Within three weeks, the cardinal, who denied the allegations, was cleared by police.
Mahony used this incident at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in June to argue that accusations can easily be proved false, and that a tough set of reforms, including a one-strike provision for priests who sexually abuse minors, should be enacted.
The bishops agreed and overwhelmingly voted for the new standards.
A second molestation allegation was leveled against Mahony in June by a man who said he was sexually abused 20 years ago in Stockton, where Mahony was a bishop. But in September, Stockton police arrested Loren Mitchell Saffels for extortion, filing a false police report and other crimes.
Still, Mahony's relationship with law enforcement remained rocky. Since June, the Los Angeles County Grand Jury has issued subpoenas for files on at least 17 priests. The archdiocese agreed, but the priests' attorney has blocked the release, pending a ruling from an appellate court.
And last month, Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury demanded that Mahony surrender documents related to at least 15 clergy sex-abuse cases.
In a strongly worded letter, Bradbury told Mahony that despite promises to assist law enforcement, the nation's largest archdiocese "remains an obstacle, protecting priests while endangering future victims."
Archdiocesan officials said they had turned over all of the information in their possession.
According to Los Angeles law enforcement agencies, about 70 current and former priests are under investigation.
In September, authorities made the first of a series of arrests involving priests or former clerics charged with molestation. Since then, six more Los Angeles-area priests have been arrested on sexual-abuse charges, including an 82-year-old retiree who was plucked off a cruise ship in Alaska in September.
One former Orange County priest, wanted by authorities in two states on more than 40 felony counts, is eluding authorities.
Details of sexual abuse, emerging mostly in lawsuits, have sickened, saddened and angered both Catholics and non-Catholics. The relentless drumbeat of the scandal marred the opening of the $189-million Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles in September. Partly because of the scandal and partly because of money woes, the ceremonies surrounding the grand opening were toned down.
Less than a week after the opening, the archdiocese unexpectedly announced a series of budget cuts that included the elimination of seven church ministries, retrenchment in others and layoffs of at least 60 workers. Protests from priests and others followed, along with the resignation of Mahony's top five lieutenants.
The archdiocese has refused to release its financial statements since the scandal broke, making it impossible to determine how much of the red ink is the result of sexual-abuse settlements or a decrease in donations.
The much smaller Diocese of Orange said in November that it had lost $28 million in the last two years, some of it because of payouts to sexual abuse victims, but mostly because of stock-market losses.
The archdiocese reported one piece of good news in December, announcing that its parishioners had pledged $16 million to aid needy parishes and schools — the highest figure in the annual fund-raising campaign's 10-year history.
By William Lobdell
An hour or so before midnight, the two Oxnard police officers pulled their cars alongside each other on a deserted road. Childhood friends and former altar boys, they now patrolled the streets of La Colonia, the working-class Latino neighborhood of their youth.
That evening last fall, Manuel Vega bypassed the usual small talk and asked hisbuddy about something that had been bothering him lately. He wanted to know if his friend was also sexually abused by a priest from their childhood.
"Did Father Fidencio molest you?"
Vega said his friend looked stunned, and then replied, "Springtime in the sixth grade."
Within a few days, Vega found six other former altar boys who said they had been molested by Fidencio Silva, a priest who was last reported working in Mexico for his order, the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit. In a television interview this year, Silva denied the allegations.
But in the following months, Vega couldn't find an attorney to take the case. Half a dozen lawyers turned him down, most saying he didn't have a chance because his statute of limitations had run out.
Then last March, one of the nation's more aggressive attorneys in sexual abuse cases against the Roman Catholic Church agreed to take up Vega's cause, playing the odds that California lawmakers would pass a bill that would lift the statute of limitations in molestation lawsuits for one year, beginning Jan. 1.
So far, the gamble has paid off. With Vega and other survivors acting as lobbyists, the California Legislature unanimously passed the law this year.
Hundreds of lawsuits are expected to be filed beginning Thursday. But for the church, Vega may be among the most formidable of the plaintiffs whose cases can now go forward: a lifelong Catholic, married to a devout Catholic and father of two; winner of the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for Heroism, the service's highest peacetime award; police officer of the year; Navy reservist; revered in Oxnard's Latino community; unafraid to speak publicly about his claims of sexual abuse by a priest; and a police officer who has found nine others with similar stories of alleged abuse by Father Silva.
"I give Manny Vega credit. If he can do it, others can," said an alleged victim of another priest who decided to come forward because of Vega's public stance. (The Times doesn't identify victims of molestation if they prefer to remain anonymous.)
Vega's voice never falters when he talks about the details of the alleged abuse or the ripple effects it has had on those around him, including his mother, a lifelong Catholic. She wonders if she's to blame for her son's alleged abuse. She has stopped going to church and cries as she drives by her former parish.
"In my job, I see a lot of victims — from someone who loses their cell phone to people dying in my arms," said Vega, a compact man with a military-style haircut, wide face and friendly smile. "I'm not going to be a victim. Something inside of me said, 'No, I'm not going to let it.' "
The Los Angeles Archdiocese said it will contest the new law, arguing that lifting the statute of limitations is unconstitutional and unfairly singles out the Catholic Church. Still, officials say they are committed to helping molestation victims, no matter how old the incidents.
"In addition to providing counseling and support, the archdiocese believes that legitimate victims of sexual abuse by clergy deserve consideration of compensation for their suffering," spokesman Tod Tamberg said. "This was true prior to the passage of [the new state law], and it is true today."
As an altar boy, Vega said, he was molested by Father Silva from about age 12 to 15 in a variety of settings: the church, the sacristy, the rectory and on outings to the beach and mountains.
For almost two decades, Vega said, he pushed the memories into his subconscious. After graduating from high school in 1984, he spent close to nine years in the Marines, working as a sniper. In 1989, he rescued men from a helicopter crash that killed 19 Marines. It wasn't until he left the military in 1992 and entered the Los Angeles Police Academy that memories of the alleged molestation began to surface during training classes on how to handle incidents of sexual abuse.
He and his wife were married in the Catholic Church, but he kept making excuses for not attending Sunday Mass. Two years ago, he told his wife about the alleged abuse.
"It was just a relief because I didn't have to continue making excuses," Vega said. "But it bothered me then and bothers me now that the church that had been a staple of my life was taken away from me."
By the end of last year, he weighed the potential fallout from his public disclosure , and decided to go forward.
"Would I lose respect on the street?" Vega recalled asking himself. "What will my fellow officers and family say? How is this going to test everyone's faith?"
Vega said the emotional effects of childhood molestation don't necessarily conform to the current statute of limitations, which allows lawsuits to be filed until the age of 26 or three years after you first realize the link between physical and emotional damage and the sexual abuse.
"At least for me, it wasn't until this particular year that I realized exactly what happened," said Vega, 36. "And there was no ignoring it anymore."
After finding seven other alleged victims, Vega met with them around the dining room table in his Oxnard home. The group included two other police officers, two corporate executives and an attorney. Eventually, two more alleged victims came forward. Vega and the other men filed suit in May, knowing that they could not proceed very far without a change in the law. So Vega went to Sacramento to lobby lawmakers and testify before committees for the need for legislation that allowed the statute of limitations to be lifted in molestation cases.
"I know I personally helped get that law passed," Vega said. "The new law ... will bring a sense of closure to the victims but not to the priests. They will still have to answer to God."
Bishop Accountability © 2003
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