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Rebuke of Cardinal Mahony casts a lengthy shadow at L.A. churches

February 1, 2013 | 10:41 am

Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez's decision to relieve his predecessor, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, of all public duties over his mishandling of clergy sex abuse of children decades ago was met by both resignation and disbelief in churches across the region.

"I was hoping it wasn't true," 71-year-old Ann Gapas said outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels after a morning prayer Friday.

"Then I come here this morning and everything is so silent and the news vans are here. It's so sad."

The news of the sex scandals have been conflicting for Gapas, who stood outside the cathedral's doors in a sweater and jeans, holding a church newsletter.

Priests "are our role models and we respect them so much," Gapas said. "You always hope it's not true."

Gomez's decision to relieve Mahony was the right choice, said Armando Zamora of Los Angeles.

Mahony "should've been denouncing the abuse," Zamora said in Spanish, "not covering it up."

It's no wonder people are upset, he said. But he added that the sex abuse scandal didn't affect his Catholic faith.

DOCUMENT: Los Angeles Archdiocese priest abuse files

"That's between me and Him," he said pointing at the sky.

Gomez on Thursday also announced that Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Curry, who worked with Mahony to conceal abusers from police in the 1980s, had resigned his post as a regional bishop in Santa Barbara.

The announcements came as the church posted on its website tens of thousands of pages of previously secret personnel files for 122 priests accused of molesting children.

"I find these files to be brutal and painful reading. The behavior described in these files is terribly sad and evil," Gomez wrote in a letter addressed to "My brothers and sisters in Christ."

The release of the records and the rebuke of the two central figures in the L.A. Archdiocese scandal signaled a clear desire by Gomez to define the sexual abuse  crisis as a problem of a different era — and a different archbishop.

"I cannot undo the failings of the past that we find in these pages. Reading these files, reflecting on the wounds that were caused has been the saddest experience I've had since becoming your Archbishop in 2011," Gomez wrote.

The public censure of Mahony, whose quarter-century at the helm of America's largest archdiocese made him one of the most powerful men in the Catholic Church, was unparalleled, experts said.

"This is very unusual and shows really how seriously they're taking this. To tell a cardinal he can't do confirmations, can't do things in public, that's extraordinary," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and Georgetown University fellow.

An archdiocese spokesman, Tod Tamberg, said Thursday that beyond canceling Mahony's confirmation schedule, his day-to-day life as a retired priest would be largely unchanged. He resides at a North Hollywood parish, and Tamberg said he would remain a "priest in good standing." He can continue to celebrate Mass and will be eligible to vote for pope until he turns 80 two years from now, Tamberg said.

The move further stained the legacy of Mahony, a tireless advocate for Latinos and undocumented immigrants whose reputation has been marred over the last decade by revelations about his treatment of sex abuse allegations.

Before Gomez's announcement, Mahony had weathered three grand jury investigations and numerous calls for his resignation. He stayed in office until the Vatican's mandatory retirement age of 75. No criminal charges have been filed against Mahony or anyone in the church hierarchy.

RELATED: L.A. church lead­ers sought to hide sex ab­use cases from au­thor­it­ies

Terrence McKiernan, president of bishopaccountability.org, said that in a religious institution that values saving face and protecting its own, Gomez's decision to publicly criticize an elder statesman of the church and his top aide was striking.

"Even when Cardinal [Bernard] Law was removed in Boston, which was arguably for the same offenses, this kind of gesture was not made," he said.

Law left office in 2002 amid mounting outrage over his transfer of pedophile priests from parish to parish, but the church presented his departure as of his own accord and he was later given a highly coveted Vatican job in Rome.

Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien of Phoenix relinquished some of his authority in a deal with prosecutors to avoid criminal charges for his handling of abuse cases, but he kept his title and many of his duties. A Kansas City bishop convicted last year of failing to report child abuse retained his position.

The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer and Dominican priest who has testified across the nation as an expert witness in clergy sex abuse cases, said the Vatican would have "absolutely" been consulted on a decision of this magnitude.

"This is momentous, there is no question," he said. "For something like this to happen to a cardinal.... The way they treat cardinals is as if they're one step below God."

Gomez's decision was the latest event in a two-week period in which the publication of 25-year-old files fueled a new round of condemnation of the L.A. archdiocese. The files of 14 clerics accused of abuse became public in a court case on Jan. 21. They revealed in Mahony and Curry's own words how the church hierarchy had worked to keep law enforcement from learning that children had been molested at the hands of priests.

To stave off investigations, Mahony and Curry gave priests they knew had abused children out-of-state assignments and kept them from seeing therapists who might alert authorities.

Mahony and Curry both issued apologies, with the cardinal saying he had not realized the extent of harm done to children until he met with victims during civil litigation. "I am sorry," he said.

Victims called for new criminal investigations and the Los Angeles County district attorney's office said it was reviewing the newly released files.

At the same time, a five-year battle over the release of confidential church records on abuser priests was drawing to a close. Under the church's 2007 settlement with more than 500 victims, the archdiocese was required to hand over the personnel files of every cleric accused of abuse.

The church waged unsuccessful battles to keep much of the material secret and later to ensure that the names of Mahony, Curry and other church employees were blacked out.

On Wednesday, church lawyers abruptly announced they planned to provide victims' lawyers with unredacted files that included the names of everyone in supervisory roles. On Thursday afternoon, a judge signed a final order requiring the archdiocese to hand over the files within three weeks.

An hour later, a spokesman for the church released Gomez's statement and the files were posted on the archdiocese website.

McKiernan of bishopaccountability.org noted that Mahony will keep the title of "archbishop emeritus" and suggested his removal from public life was primarily an effort to blunt the wave of criticism likely to follow the file release.

"They are trying to gain control of what is truly a devastating time for them," he said.

The files released Thursday contained additional evidence of attempts by Curry and Mahony to stymie police investigations.

In a 1988 memo about Father Nicolas Aguilar-Rivera, a Mexican priest accused of molesting more than 20 boys during a nine-month stay in Los Angeles, Curry expressed a desire to keep a list of parish altar boys from investigators.

"The whole issue of our records is a very sensitive one, and I am reluctant to give any list to the police," Curry wrote.

At the bottom of the memo, Mahony replied: "We cannot give such a list for no cause whatsoever."

The police charged Aguilar-Rivera, but after receiving a warning from Curry, he went to Mexico.  He remains a fugitive.

In some memos, archdiocesan officials appeared concerned only with the church's reputation and displayed little sympathy for the victims of abuse. In a 1990 note about Father George Neville Rucker, who authorities believe molested 30 children, an unidentified church official wrote that three women had contacted the archdiocese alleging that the priest molested them decades earlier when they were children.

"One of these days, they may happen to meet and all hell will break loose," the official wrote.

At the Our Lady Queen of Angels Church on Olvera Street Thursday night, there was debate about Gomez's decision.

Richard Estrada, a church volunteer from Los Angeles, said he remained skeptical that Mahony participated in the cover-up, adding that if he did, he was trying to protect the church.

"But it hurts everybody," said Jose Lopez, a minister who said he become religious after multiple stints in prison. "Forget about embarrassment, it's hurting the kids."

"The whole thing is just a shame," Estrada replied.

Ralph Ochoa, a food volunteer, started to interrupt, then paused. The group went quiet. He then took a small breath and spoke.

"I really think Mahony is a disgrace," he said. "I really do. No matter what we say or do, no one knows. He'll get his judgment."

"If it's true," Estrada jumped in.

"We have to believe it's true," Ochoa said. "To keep our faith in the church."


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Photo: People leave morning Mass at Cathedral Of Our Lady Of The Angels on Friday. Photo by Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times