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Los Angeles cardinal unlikely to face charges

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014 8:07 p.m. CST

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LOS ANGELES – The nation's largest Roman Catholic archdiocese has agreed to pay $720 million to clergy abuse victims over the past decade and released internal files that showed Cardinal Roger Mahony shielded priests and ordered a surrogate to withhold evidence from police, yet Mahony and other archdiocese leaders are unlikely to face criminal charges.

With the final $13 million settlement of existing old cases announced Wednesday, Mahony has emerged from the scandal with his reputation tarnished, but his place in the church intact – even after being publicly rebuked by his successor for internal church files showing that he and others worked to protect priests, keep parishioners in the dark and defend the church's image.

By settling the cases, the archdiocese avoids a trial in which Mahony would have been publicly questioned under oath about what plaintiffs' lawyers said was an attempt to thwart a Los Angeles police investigation.

During a deposition unsealed Wednesday, Mahony acknowledged he told an underling not to give police a list of altar boys who had worked with the Rev. Nicolas Aguilar Rivera. He testified he wasn't trying to hinder police, but he didn't want the boys to be scarred by the investigation and that he felt the altar boys were too old to be potential victims of the Mexican priest.

Police later found that 25 of Aguilar Rivera's alleged victims were altar boys and the other victim was training with the priest to be one, said Anthony DeMarco, a plaintiff attorney.

It's not clear what impact Mahony's action had on the investigation, though at the time, police complained that the archdiocese wasn't fully cooperating.

"Cardinal Mahony and those top officials have never been held fully to account," Jeff Anderson, a plaintiffs' attorney, said at a news conference. "What we see is a current and ongoing attempt to deflect and deny responsibility."

The priest is believed to have molested 100 additional children in Mexico both before and after his stint in Los Angeles, DeMarco said. He was defrocked in 2009 after attorneys in Los Angeles filed the first of their lawsuits.

The archdiocese said in a statement Tuesday that the church had settled the cases to "provide support to the victims through the healing process."

Mahony, who retired as head of the archdiocese in 2011, was admonished last year by Archbishop Jose Gomez for his handling of the abuse crisis. But he has avoided criminal prosecution, despite investigations by the Los Angeles County district attorney and the U.S. attorney's office.

With only a three- to five-year period to bring charges of obstruction of justice after a crime – depending on a federal or state court venue – it's unlikely he or other church administrators would face charges now for cases that date back more than a decade, said Lawrence Rosenthal, a criminal law professor at Chapman University and a former prosecutor.

In other cases, church leaders accused of shielding pedophile priests from prosecution have faced criminal charges.

Prosecutors in Philadelphia won the conviction of a monsignor after a change in state law gave prosecutors more time to file charges and seek evidence. A state appeals court last year, however, threw out the conviction and said he never should have been charged.

In Missouri, a judge found the Kansas City bishop guilty last year of failing to report child abuse to the state, making him the highest-ranking U.S. Roman Catholic official to be convicted of a crime related to the child sexual abuse scandal. He was sentenced to probation for the misdemeanor and remains head of his diocese.

A Los Angeles federal prosecutor involved in a 2009 grand jury investigation wrote that documents showed "the possibility of criminal culpability" by members of the archdiocese leadership, but a criminal conspiracy case was "more and more remote" because of the passage of time.

The newly disclosed testimony by Mahony deals mostly with Aguilar Rivera, who fled to his native Mexico in January 1988 after Mahony's top aide, Monsignor Thomas Curry, tipped him off about parent complaints and warned that the church would call police.

Aguilar Rivera, who was 46 at the time, remains a fugitive and is believed to be somewhere in Mexico.

U.S. authorities have an arrest warrant pending and could arrest him if he returns to American soil.

In the deposition taken a year ago, Mahony appears on video in his priests' collar, taking long pauses and glancing down frequently. At one point he explains why he told Curry not to share a list of altar boys with police. Allowing police to question altar boys at the two parishes where Aguilar Rivera worked during his 10-month stint in LA "could be very traumatic to those servers to all of a sudden be sitting in front of a policeman being interrogated," the cardinal said. "And we had no suspicion at that time of any other victims and nobody among the altar servers."

He denied under questioning from plaintiff attorneys that his motivation in holding back the list was to protect the priest and delay the investigation.

J. Michael Hennigan, an attorney with the archdiocese, said Mahony was in Rome on Wednesday and was not available to comment.

Hennigan said Mahony was "very vigorous" in trying to get Aguilar Rivera brought back to the U.S. for prosecution after he fled.

Mahony wrote to his counterpart in Aguilar Rivera's diocese and urged him to contact police.

In his testimony, Mahony also defended Curry, the vicar for clergy, for telling Aguilar Rivera that the church would need to contact police and that the accused priest was "in a good deal of danger."

The complaints came in on a Friday, and Curry met with the priest Saturday morning. Police weren't notified until Monday. By then, Aguilar Rivera was gone.

Victor Cortez, 34, said he was molested by Aguilar Rivera when he was 7 and kept the abuse secret for years.

"I've lived for 26 years with fear, and now I'm not afraid anymore," said Cortez, who was part of Wednesday's settlement announcement. "Once I got it all out, the problems just went away. I'm able to be a better father to my children and a better husband to my wife."

Mahony also testified about a 1986 letter he wrote to the director at a New Mexico center treating the Rev. Peter Garcia for pedophilia, warning that the priest couldn't return to Los Angeles in the foreseeable future.

"I believe that if Monsignor Garcia were to reappear here with the archdiocese, we might very well have some type of legal action filed in both the criminal and civil sectors," he wrote.

In his deposition, Mahony said the letter was not intended to protect Garcia from prosecution.

"Was I interested in having a big civil upset here for the archdiocese? No, I was not," he said. "But I was not encouraging him to avoid criminal prosecution."

Mahony, who turns 78 next week, has largely retreated from the public eye.

After giving his deposition last year, he traveled to Rome, where he helped elect the new pope. A month ago, he celebrated Mass with Pope Francis at the Vatican before having a private meeting with him.

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