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L.A. church molestation records spark call for criminal inquiry

January 22, 2013 |  4:30 am

Newly released L.A. Archdiocese records showing how officials handled the priest sex abuse scandal have prompted a new call for law enforcement action.

The documents released Monday show that then-Archbishop Roger M. Mahony and a top advisor plotted to conceal child molestation by priests from law enforcement.

The archdiocese’s failure to purge pedophile clergy and reluctance to cooperate with law enforcement had previously been known. But the new memos offer the strongest evidence yet of a concerted effort by officials in the nation’s largest Catholic diocese to keep abusers from the attention of police.

DOCUEMENTS: Los Angeles Archdiocese priest abuse files

The SNAP Network, an activist group that works on behalf of abuse victims, released a statement Monday calling on authorities to look into the new documents.

"We urge law enforcement to carefully evaluate all of these files and do the best they can to deliver criminal indictments to anyone who abused or knowingly endangered a child. It is only when criminals are punished to the fullest extent of the law that children are kept safe from abuse," the group said.

In the confidential letters, which the archdiocese fought for years to keep secret, Msgr. Thomas J. Curry, then the archdiocese’s chief advisor on sex abuse cases, proposed strategies to prevent police from investigating three priests who had admitted to church officials that they had abused young boys.

Curry suggested to Mahony that they keep priests from seeing therapists who might alert authorities and that they give the priests out-of-state assignments to avoid criminal investigators. The letters, written in 1986 and 1987, were filed this month as evidence in a civil court case.

Mahony, who retired in 2011, issued a statement Monday apologizing.

“It remains my daily and fervent prayer that God’s grace will flood the heart and soul of each victim, and that their life-journey continues forward with ever greater healing,” he said. “I am sorry.”

Mahony and Curry have been questioned under oath in depositions numerous times about their handling of molestation cases. The men, however, have never been asked about attempts to stymie law enforcement, because the personnel files documenting those discussions were provided to civil attorneys only in recent months.

One case that has previously received little attention is that of Msgr. Peter Garcia, who admitted preying for decades on children in predominantly Spanish-speaking parishes. After Garcia’s discharge from a New Mexico treatment center for pedophile clergy, Mahony ordered him to stay away from California “for the foreseeable future,” the files show.

“I believe that if Monsignor 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,” the archbishop wrote to the treatment center’s director in July 1986.

The next year, in a letter to Mahony about bringing Garcia back to work in the archdiocese, Curry said he was worried that victims in Los Angeles might see the priest and call police.

“[T]here are numerous — maybe twenty — 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,” Curry wrote in May 1987.

Garcia returned to the Los Angeles area later that year; the archdiocese did not give him a ministerial assignment because he refused to take medication to suppress his sexual urges. He left the priesthood in 1989, according to the church.

Garcia was never prosecuted and died in 2009. The files show he admitted to a therapist that he had sexually abused boys “on and off” since his 1966 ordination. He assured church officials his victims were unlikely to come forward because of their immigration status. In at least one case, according to a church memo, he threatened to have a boy he had raped deported if he went to police.

The memos are from personnel files for 14 priests submitted to a judge on behalf of a man who claims he was abused by one of the priests, Father Nicholas Aguilar Rivera. The man’s attorney, Anthony De Marco, wrote in court papers that the files show “a practice of thwarting law enforcement investigations” by the archdiocese. It’s not always clear from the records whether the church followed through on all its discussions about eluding police, but in some cases, such as Garcia’s, it did.

Federal and state prosecutors have investigated possible conspiracy cases against the archdiocese hierarchy. Former Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said in 2007 that his probe into the conduct of high-ranking church officials was on hold until his prosecutors could access the personnel files of all the abusers. The U.S. attorney’s office convened a grand jury in 2009, but no charges resulted.

During those investigations, the church was forced by judges to turn over some but not all of the records to prosecutors. The district attorney’s office has said its prosecutors plan to review priest personnel files as they are released.

Mahony has apologized repeatedly for errors in handling abuse allegations. In his statement Monday, he recounted meetings he’s had with about 90 victims of abuse.

“I have a 3 x 5 card for every victim I met with on the altar of my small chapel. I pray for them every single day,” he wrote. “As I thumb through those cards I often pause as I am reminded of each personal story and the anguish that accompanies that life story.”

In a separate statement Monday, a lawyer for the church said its policy in the late 1980s was to let victims and their families decide whether to go to the police.

“Not surprisingly, the families of victims frequently did not wish to report to police and have their child become the center of a public prosecution,” lawyer J. Michael Hennigan wrote.

He acknowledged that memos written in those years “sometimes focused more on the needs of the perpetrator than on the serious harm that had been done to the victims.” “That is part of the past,” Hennigan wrote. “We are embarrassed and at times ashamed by parts of the past. But we are proud of our progress, which is continuing.”

Hennigan said that the years in which Mahony dealt with Garcia were “a period of deepening understanding of the nature of the problem of sex abuse both here and in our society in general” and that the archdiocese subsequently changed completely its approach to reports of abuse.

“We now have retired FBI agents who thoroughly investigate every allegation, even anonymous calls. We aggressively assist in the criminal prosecution of offenders,” Hennigan wrote.

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Photo: Cardinal Roger Mahony, seen at a 2007 trial of a case involving sexual abuse by priests, wrote memos in 1986 and 1987 that offer the strongest evidence yet of a concerted effort by archdiocese officials to shield abusers from police. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

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