As Clergy Abuse Scandal Erupts, Roger Mahony Put in Spotlight

By Harriet Ryan
The Ashley Powers and Victoria Kim
December 1, 2013

[For Roger Mahony, clergy abuse cases were a threat to agenda - Part 1]

On a brilliant Sunday afternoon, Cardinal Roger Mahony stood before thousands jammed into a vacant lot overlooking the 101 Freeway. The archbishop, resplendent in gold and crimson, told the crowd that the cathedral that would rise from the dirt would stand for centuries as a monument to the church's stature in Los Angeles.

"This revered ground is blessed and dedicated to God for the ages to come," . Three hundred doves fluttered into a cloudless sky, a choir of 800 sang and the faithful roared their approval.

In 1997, a dozen years into his tenure, Mahony was at the height of his power. He was a national advocate for immigrants in the country illegally, and his voice carried sway on issues including welfare reform and the racial tensions arising from the O.J. Simpson trial. Residents — Catholic and others — consistently voted him among the region's most popular public figures in opinion polls.

But in a locked cabinet in the archdiocese headquarters, files  of children.

Manila folders alphabetized by abusers' names contained letters from distraught parents, graphic confessions from priests, and memos between the archbishop and his aides discussing how to stymie police investigations and avoid lawsuits.

To Mahony, the meticulous files were a record of problems solved and scandals averted. In the years to come, however, it would become increasingly hard — and finally impossible — to keep the problem of sexual abuse locked away.

Revelations that he had shielded pedophiles eventually undercut the moral authority that had made him one of America's most important Catholic leaders. One by one, people who had revered and trusted him would turn away. He lost the victims and their parents first, then his aides, the press, the political establishment, lay Catholics and ultimately the church he'd worked so hard to protect.

From early in his time as archbishop, Mahony did more than his predecessors to address sexual abuse by priests. For the most part, he didn't ignore allegations or shuffle untreated molesters from parish to parish. He insisted on inpatient therapy and placed returning priests in jobs where they had little access to children.

"Nothing pains me more than to learn of such misconduct on the part of anyone in the official service of the Church," he wrote to a victim's parents.

But he drew the line at steps that would acknowledge abuse cases publicly. By the mid-1990s, that insistence on secrecy was turning loyal Catholics like Paul and Sue Griffith against Mahony.

When the Long Beach couple learned that a priest had molested their son, they trusted Mahony to handle it appropriately. At the chancery, their son poured out his pain about the years of abuse he'd suffered, starting in seventh grade. "It's unbelievable how a grown man could be attracted to a kid and destroy him," the 21-year-old told church officials.

Mahony sent Father Ted Llanos to a church-run facility in Maryland and planned to explain his absence as the result of "administrative stress." Involving the police, a Mahony aide told the Griffiths, wouldn't help anyone.

In the past, that might have sufficed. But with molestation having become a staple of news reports and talk shows, families like the Griffiths were more willing to challenge the church.

"I view your ... announcement as a cover-up or at least managing the news to execute damage control," Paul Griffith wrote in a letter to the church. His son had been brave, he wrote, and now the archdiocese was failing to show "an equal amount of courage to be truthful."

Church officials went ahead with an announcement saying Llanos was leaving because of "issues in his life." But an anonymous call led to a police investigation and at least 15 other alleged victims came forward. Criminal charges against Llanos and extensive press coverage followed. Mahony met with the Griffiths at the chancery. He apologized for the pain Llanos had caused and assured the couple that the priest was an aberration.

The meeting didn't assuage the Griffiths. They criticized Mahony in media interviews and editorials and helped their son sue the archdiocese.

Sue Griffith, recalling the meeting with Mahony in an interview with The Times, said the cardinal had claimed that during his tenure only one other church employee molested a child: a school janitor.

It was Holy Week, and Mahony's calendar was jammed. In addition to the rites leading up to Easter 2000, the cardinal was working around the clock with city leaders to end a strike by 8,500 janitors. Presidential candidate Al Gore was also in town and wanted to meet.

That Tuesday afternoon, Father Michael Baker walked into archdiocese headquarters. Fourteen years earlier, he had confided to the cardinal that he'd molested two boys for nearly a decade. After a stint in treatment, he was allowed back into limited ministry.

Now, he was asking to see Mahony's top aide, nervously clutching a stack of papers. Baker handed the papers to Msgr. Richard Loomis without explanation.

It was a draft lawsuit from an attorney for two new victims — brothers then living in Arizona — accusing Baker of molesting them over 15 years in California and Arizona. The attorney gave the church and Baker one week to compensate the victims or face a lawsuit. Loomis didn't even read to the end before removing Baker from the ministry. Pack your bags, he told the priest.

Mahony had quietly settled claims before, many for little or no money. But to prevent an airing of Baker's misdeeds in a public courtroom, he approved a settlement on a different order: $1.25 million.

The payout stopped the suit, but not Baker. Mahony barred him from acting as a priest in public, but church officials soon learned he was still wearing his clerical collar and ingratiating himself with families by performing baptisms.

Those closest to Mahony realized that after years of trying to handle Baker quietly, they had reached a breaking point.

Loomis and the archdiocese's lawyer, John McNicholas, told the cardinal that for the safety of the community, the faithful must be alerted. They proposed vaguely worded parish announcements about Baker's "past inappropriate behavior with minors" in another state. But even that was too much for Mahony.

"There is no alternative to public announcements at all the Masses in 15 parishes???" Mahony emailed Loomis. "Wow — that really scares the daylights out of me!!"

Announcements would distract from all that the cardinal was trying to accomplish: a new immigration amnesty, a push against the death penalty and more funding for parochial education. Just the week before, he had taken presidential hopeful George W. Bush to South L.A. to show him how Catholic schools were helping poor children.

"We could open up yet another fire storm — and it takes us years to recover from those," he told Loomis.

No announcement was made. Later that year, Baker was defrocked. In the past, Mahony's aides had not questioned the way he dealt with abuse, but Loomis couldn't contain his anger in this case. He told a colleague that how Mahony had handled Baker was "immoral and unethical" — and shortsighted.

"Someone else will end up owning the Archdiocese of Los Angeles," he wrote in a memo. "We've stepped back 20 years and are being driven by the need to cover-up and to keep the presbyterate [priests] & public happily ignorant rather than the need to protect children."

Mahony had hoped to spend Christmas 2001 with U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But the Army said it was too dangerous, and he ended up celebrating Mass on an aircraft carrier off Tokyo.

He was still shaking off jet lag when the Boston Globe published the first in a series of stories that would shake the Catholic faith. "Church allowed abuse by priest for years," the headline read. The priest was Father John Geoghan, and the disgraced archbishop was Cardinal Bernard Law.

But 3,000 miles away, Mahony recognized a threat to his own reputation. By this time, he had quietly dealt with at least 47 clergymen accused of abuse.

He quietly drew up a list of all accused abusers still working in the archdiocese. There were seven. One by one, he summoned them to the chancery and informed them their careers were over.

But after Boston, the world had changed. Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks publicly demanded the names of abusers. Detectives, thwarted on church cases for decades, set up a hotline for victims. When they learned about a possible molester priest in Azusa, they dispatched at least 15 investigators to interview altar boys.

Talk radio hosts whom Mahony had once charmed by calling in traffic reports pilloried him. When emails in which he expressed fear of a criminal investigation were leaked, KFI-AM read them live on the air from outside the cathedral.

His press office embraced a phrase once unimaginable for the archbishop: "No comment." When he finally spoke to reporters, he joined the critics piling on Law but admitted few mistakes of his own.

"I don't know how I could face people," . "I don't know how I could walk down the main aisle of the church myself comfortably, interiorly, if I had been [guilty] of grave neglect."

With each new headline, more victims stepped forward. Some of the accused priests were long dead, others long gone from L.A. Some were beloved, others the subject of rumors for decades. Mahony lamented that to be a priest was to be suspected of abuse.

Late one Friday night, he picked up his phone and called the LAPD. He was patched through to Det. Dale Barraclough, who was getting ready for bed.

The detective was astounded, he said in an interview. In two decades of Barraclough's investigating child sex abuse cases, Mahony had been a distant adversary who sent aides and lawyers to frustrate investigations. Now the cardinal was calling him.

There's a new abuse allegation, Mahony said. It involves me.

A schizophrenic woman had  at a Fresno high school. He told Barraclough he didn't know the woman. The detective thanked him and typed up a report. Fresno police later cleared the cardinal.

It was the first time Mahony had reported an abuse allegation to the LAPD, and the only time he could be certain it was false.

By the spring of 2002, the file Mahony kept on Michael Baker had grown to more than 300 pages. Only a handful of people had ever laid eyes on it, and the cardinal thought it inconceivable that its damaging contents would ever become public.

As in the past, Mahony had misjudged Baker. When Times reporters tracked the former priest down, he provided details of how he had told the archbishop he was a child molester. In the 2002 front-page story, Baker recounted that during a 1986 meeting with Mahony, a church attorney blurted out that perhaps police should be called.

Mahony's response, , was "No, no, no."

The revelation prompted then-Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley to convene a grand jury to subpoena the personnel files of Baker and other priests. Mahony refused to turn over the files, saying canon law required that conversations between bishops and priests remain confidential. Cooley countered that there was no such legal protection and accused the cardinal of obstruction.

The battle cost the archbishop in Sacramento, where lawyers and victims' groups were pushing for legislation that would temporarily lift the statute of limitations on sex abuse lawsuits and allow victims to sue the church over decades-old allegations. Mahony was once a powerful force in the capital, but his refusal to hand over records was now being cited by irate legislators — some of them raised in the church — as a reason to support the bill.

"It made it easy for the Legislature," Rod Pacheco, then a GOP assemblyman from Riverside and a former altar boy, recalled in an interview. "We're in Sacramento reading these articles and talking to people in our districts. No one's on the church's side. Nobody."

The measure passed easily.

The scandal consumed Mahony's days, but he seemed to find solace at the corner of Temple Street and Grand Avenue. There, the $189-million Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels was nearing completion. Mahony had spent years approving every detail, down to the wattage of freight elevator light bulbs. He walked the grounds almost daily in a hard hat and snapped enough photos to fill 40 albums. When he spoke of the sprawling plaza and the soaring nave, he sounded like a new father.

"I dreamed of how it would look," , "but I never thought it could be so beautiful."

To Mahony's dismay, the abuse scandal continued to dominate the news. He turned to the crisis public relations firm Sitrick and Co., which had counted Enron among its clients. In one meeting with journalists arranged by the firm, he said he thought about the scandal every two to three minutes and wished he could "back up and undo" his mistakes.

"We were really following what was then a view in the psychiatric, psychological circle that this particular malady could somehow be successfully treated," he said. "And that turned out to be wrong."

He ended by pleading for "some great story about the cathedral without sex abuse in that story."

In the weeks surrounding the cathedral's September 2002 unveiling, the elite of L.A. feted Mahony. Billionaire Eli Broad hosted an intimate dinner at the California Club, and a who's who of L.A. — including Vin Scully and Roy Disney — turned out for a $25,000-a-table black-tie gala.

The four-hour dedication Mass was so important to Mahony that he went through 32 drafts of his homily. In the end, he didn't mention sex abuse; but outside, protesters had brought a papier-mache effigy of Mahony holding a sign that read, "Suffer the little children." Some mocked his cathedral as "the Taj Mahony."

Four months later, the first lawsuits resulting from the Sacramento law were filed. Mahony hired a downtown firm that specialized in what attorneys call "bet-the-company litigation." The law firm estimated that about 100 people would sue. In the end, more than 500 did.

The claims stretched back to the 1930s, and many named priests never previously accused of abuse, including Loomis, the Mahony aide who had removed Baker from ministry. Loomis denied the allegations but was put on leave. Lawyers had predicted a "feeding frenzy" of false claims. But as victim after victim gave sworn accounts, it became clear to church officials that the vast majority were telling the truth.

With the scandal he had feared for so long now a reality, Mahony began to embrace transparency. In 2004,  unparalleled in the American church. It called on the church to "examine its conscience" about having placed secrecy and image preservation above the well-being of children.

Mahony set up an office to assist victims. He hired retired FBI agents to investigate every claim. He instituted fingerprinting for clergy, teachers and volunteers and started a mandatory program to teach them how to prevent abuse.

Mahony invited victims to meet one-on-one with him. More than 90 accepted. A man who said he was molested by Baker refused to shake Mahony's hand, he told The Times, and lambasted the cardinal for more than an hour about how the priest's abuse had led to a lifetime of crime and alcoholism.

How can I help you? Mahony finally asked.

Give me my childhood back, the man replied.

On a winter evening in 2008, Mahony welcomed a group of parishioners from La Cañada Flintridge into a conference room at the cathedral.

He had settled the bulk of the abuse litigation for $720 million, far greater than any previous settlements in the U.S. Catholic Church and far more than the archdiocese could afford. Mahony was now forced to beg wealthy parishes for contributions.

St. Bede's had more than $100,000 to spare. He showed the parishioners accountants' reports, charts and timelines, two people who attended the meeting said in interviews. He told them how an East L.A. parish had held a tamale sale and brought him a check for a couple hundred dollars.

What about Michael Baker? a man interrupted.

A lot of us come from business backgrounds, a woman further down the table said, and you are a CEO who just paid out a three-quarter-billion-dollar settlement. We think you should resign.

Don't you think I want to retire? Mahony said, his voice rising. I could be at my cabin in the Sierra. I'm staying because I'm the best person to fix this.

It's about accountability, another woman said.

Mahony slammed his hand on the table, scattering his charts. You self-righteous... he began. Keep your money, he told them.

By 2011, when Mahony reached the church's retirement age of 75, he had outlasted most of the public fury.

He planned on using his remaining years to advocate for the rights of immigrants in the country illegally and saw an opportunity when President Obama announced his second-term push to overhaul immigration law.

But events in a dreary courtroom west of downtown last winter would ensure that he couldn't separate his legacy from the abuse scandal. In January, after years of delays, forcing the archdiocese to make public thousands of pages of priest personnel files, the final piece of Mahony's mammoth settlement with victims.

The records , and often in Mahony's own handwriting, the level of his personal involvement with abuse cases. He had reviewed the psychiatric reports in which priests laid out what they'd done to children. He had read the letters in which mothers of victims described their agony, and he had strategized with aides about how to keep abusers from justice.

He issued , this one describing notecards he'd kept listing the names of the victims he had met.

"I pray for them every single day," he said. "I am sorry."

It wasn't enough. There were calls for Mahony's prosecution. When he ventured out to run errands, strangers berated him.

His successor, Archbishop Jose Gomez, wrote a letter to the faithful  for his failures in dealing with abuse and announcing that Mahony would no longer have any "administrative and public duties" in the archdiocese. Mahony was furious. He objected in private to the Vatican and in .

"Not once over these past years did you ever raise any questions" about clergy abuse, Mahony wrote, adding, "I handed over to you an Archdiocese that was second to none in protecting children and youth."

Hours later, Gomez issued  that Mahony remained "in good standing."

On a Monday morning nearly two weeks later, Mahony woke up to the news that Pope Benedict XVI had resigned.

"I look forward to traveling to Rome soon … to participate in the Conclave to elect his successor," .

Many did not share his enthusiasm. With Law too old to vote for the next pope, Mahony stood as the global face of clergy abuse. A liberal U.S. Catholic group  urging him to stay home.

After he arrived at the Vatican, some of his fellow prelates, men whose own records on abuse largely remained secret, distanced themselves. Several told reporters that Mahony  in deciding whether to participate.

Mahony stood his ground, giving television interviews and blogging and tweeting from Rome. But once he returned to Los Angeles, he largely faded from public view.

He now lives in the rectory of his boyhood parish in North Hollywood. Some Sundays, he volunteers at churches in poorer neighborhoods, saying Mass in Spanish in place of vacationing priests.

When Mahony's predecessor retired, a church historian worked with him to prepare an exhaustive biography. No one is currently working on Mahony's.

Friends say that on his best days, he sees the scandal as the cross God has asked him to bear.

"I am not being called to serve Jesus in humility. Rather, I am being called to something deeper — to be humiliated, disgraced, and rebuffed by many," . He added, "To be honest with you, I have not reached the point where I can actually pray for more humiliation. I'm only at the stage of asking for the grace to endure the level of humiliation at the moment."

Michael Baker served about six years behind bars after pleading guilty to molesting two boys. Authorities believe he abused at least 21 other children. He now lives at a senior citizen community in Costa Mesa. On a recent morning, he answered the door for reporters wearing only shorts. Keep your voices down, he said. My neighbors don't know.

In an interview shortly before his release from prison, two L.A. detectives pressed Baker about Mahony.

Why did the cardinal shelter you for so long? they asked.

Baker shrugged.

"I don't know his phone number. I never called him. I never went over to his place, never had any meal," he said. "We haven't talked since that one meeting in 1986."


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