Bishops Contradict Each Other in Priest Sex Abuse Scandal

By Diego Cevallos
February 23, 2007

Mexico City — The Catholic Church's call for its bishops to be "teachers of the truth" seems to be wobbling in the case of cardinals Norberto Rivera of Mexico and Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, California.

Defending themselves from legal charges that they covered up for a priest accused of molesting boys, the two bishops have provided contradictory versions.

"One of them is lying, or at least isn't telling everything he knows," Bernardo Barranco, a columnist with several media outlets in Mexico and a sociologist of religion, told IPS. "This is an interecclesiatic dispute, which is unusual," he added.

The mutually contradictory statements by cardinals Rivera and Mahony refer to the transfer to the United States of a priest, Nicolás Aguilar, a fugitive from justice who is charged with sexually abusing dozens of boys in the United States and Mexico in the 1980s and 1990s.

Rivera, the primate of Mexico, says that in 1987 he sent a letter to Mahony warning him that Aguilar might have "homosexual problems", although he said he used a euphemism: "the motivation for Aguilar's trip to Los Angeles was 'family and health reasons'."

However, Mahony's spokesman Tom Tamberg said the cardinal never received a letter from Rivera.

Mahony said he employed Aguilar without being aware of the allegations he was facing in Mexico, and that he fired the priest when he was accused of sexually abusing young members of his congregation in Los Angeles.

Aguilar returned to Mexico, where he remained active as a priest.

Joaquín Aguilar (no relation), a 25-year-old former Mexican altar boy, says he was raped by the priest in 1994. In September, he filed a civil suit in Los Angeles, accusing Rivera and Mahony of conspiring to protect Father Aguilar.

The lawsuit charges the cardinals with negligence, concealing evidence and conspiring to cover up the priest's conduct.

At the time, Father Hugo Valdemar, spokesman for the archdiocese of Mexico, told IPS that "The motivation underlying this whole scandal is the aim of a radical group to commercialise justice and squeeze money out of the Church. Mr. Aguilar is being used to that end."

Rivera and his spokesman argued that Aguilar and his attorneys in the Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) are only seeking to hurt the Church.

However, the bishop has now taken a different stance. On Wednesday, lawyers in the United States delivered to the California high court a written statement in which Rivera rejected the charges and challenged the court's jurisdiction over a Mexican bishop.

In the document, Rivera claims that he did not at any time protect Father Aguilar and that he had even informed Mahony of the suspicions hanging over the priest.

"The leadership in the Vatican could step in to clarify the contradictions between the bishops of Mexico and Los Angeles, and to investigate what happened in the case of Aguilar," said Alberto Athié, who left the priesthood in 2003.

Either of the two bishops could face a canonical trial for lying," said Athié, who as a Mexican priest represented the Church in the Catholic charity Cáritas International for Central America and Mexico in the late 1990s.

According to Barranco, "the Mexican cardinal has found himself in a huge problem in the Aguilar case."

After initially playing down its significance, "he is now recognising its importance, and in the process he has entered a terrain of statements, counterstatements and contradictions with his colleague from Los Angeles, which is just incredible," said the analyst.

"This could give rise to an enormous scandal, and the Vatican may have to intervene," added Barranco.

Testimony, evidence and confessions from bishops have clearly demonstrated that Catholic priests accused of sexually abusing minors have been transferred from parish to parish, sent to rehabilitation centres, or simply removed from the scene by their superiors to protect the Church from scandal and avoid court action. However, many simply continue their activities elsewhere.

The Church sex abuse scandal erupted in the United States in 2002, with former victims speaking out and filing around 1,200 lawsuits, and evidence emerging that bishops knowingly reassigned priests despite allegations against them.

The Vatican organised symposiums and carried out a study on the matter, and urged bishops around the world to take vigorous measures against priests implicated in the scandal, and to report the cases directly to the pope.

Cardinal Rivera said the Church in Mexico completely shares these instructions, and urged the faithful to report pedophile priests who, he assured, do not enjoy any kind of immunity.

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