Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, in his first interview since the priest-abuse scandal broke, said Tuesday his refusal to give details about priests dismissed from the Los Angeles Archdiocese was based on requests from police and victims.
The cardinal, the archbishop of Los Angeles, requested an interview with a Times reporter to clear the air about the archdiocese’s role in the sex abuse cases. He compared the church’s sexual abuse crisis to a cancer, saying that until the “last injurious cell” is removed, the church will not be able to move on.
However, Mahony did little to clarify the types of abuses committed by the six to 12 archdiocese priests sources said he removed earlier this year. Nor would he say exactly how many priests were dismissed. He said two victims in “heart-wrenching pleas” urged him not to reveal the priests’ identities.
A lieutenant in the Los Angeles Police Department unit that specializes in sexually exploited children cases said based on recent meetings he has attended, the church was never asked not to disclose the number of priests Mahony recently discharged.
While refusing to say how many priests were dismissed, Mahony said that none were currently involved in any ministry involving children or youths. The scandal, which has sent tremors throughout the worldwide church, erupted in January in Boston, when it was reported that a priest who had allegedly molested more than 130 boys had been transferred by superiors from parish to parish.
Boston Cardinal Bernard Law has come under pressure to resign. Mahony declined to take a stand on Law’s future Tuesday, but said, “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.” He said later in an e-mail that his use of the term “grave neglect” was not a personal judgment, but a frequently used characterization by Catholics in Boston.
While emphasizing that even one case of sexual abuse brought “terrible agony and tragedy” to the victim, Mahony said problems in the three-county Los Angeles archdiocese paled in comparison to Boston.
The cardinal also discussed the demanding regimen of celibacy, saying it was not connected to child abuse. Asked how he models a celibate life for his priests, Mahony said support groups and spirituality are essential.
“We must have a life of prayer. We need a good spiritual director, and I particularly promote the use of support groups, especially prayer support groups. I’ve belonged to one almost my entire priesthood,” Mahony said.
The cardinal said there are only two current sex-abuse cases in the archdiocese. One was reported last year, involving a permanent deacon. Another, involving the abuse of youths in an Azusa church, was recently phoned in to the archdiocese’s hotline. Mahony said it has not been determined whether that case involves a priest. Sheriff’s detectives on Monday said they were investigating but would not identify the suspect.
Mahony said the paucity of new cases shows that the archdiocese’s sexual abuse policy, first put in force in 1988 and strengthened last month, is working.
He said current cases of priestly abuse are handled openly and that there is no hesitancy to inform a parish when circumstances warrant. The church, he said, fully complies with the civil law that mandates that all suspected child abuse and neglect be reported to authorities.
“Our number-one job is to protect children and young people. Our second job is to reach out to victims in the best way we can,” Mahony said. Next, he said, parishioners and priests need support during a crisis Mahony called “one of the most difficult things I’ve ever been through.”
Mahony stressed that all of the recently dismissed priests were involved in old cases, many of them decades old, and that they had been through the criminal justice system. Their names, he said, had been known to law enforcement officials.
Two victims in the old cases, Mahony said, pleaded with him not to release the names of the abusing priests because the records would also show the names of the victims. In one case, a man said the disclosure that he had been sexually abused as a boy would threaten his marriage. In another case, a man who was abused told Mahony he had managed to avoid answering an employment question about any history of abuse. If it came out that he had been abused as a youth, the man told Mahony, he could lose his job.
Mahony acknowledged during questioning that it may appear that he is protecting the priests and not the victims. But he said he was convinced by the two victims who feared releasing the priests’ names would “lead to their front door.”
“It’s been a very, very difficult thing for me because I really sincerely believe what they [the victims] told me and the anguish of their hearts. I promised them I wouldn’t do it.”
Repeating a statement from a week ago, he said that he had no objection if victims want to disclose the names of their priest offenders.
Mahony said he was convinced by church attorneys that it would not be practical to name a specific number of dismissals because there were several reviews of old cases.
The archdiocese, Mahony said, has gone so far as to ask the LAPD to look at old cases that fell in the jurisdiction of other police departments. Mahony said some smaller departments had, in effect, dropped the ball years ago and that the archdiocese wanted to be sure nothing had gone unnoticed. He declined to name the smaller departments he had in mind.
The Times reported on March 4 that six to 12 priests had been dismissed by Mahony in February, according to sources in the church. Mahony at the time refused to confirm or deny the report. Later, he said only that “a few” priests, almost all of them retired, were involved.
“There was no Black Monday when all of a sudden a bunch of people got dumped,” Mahony said Tuesday. He said most of them were already retired. Some were living outside the archdiocese. But he said he took action because they receive pensions from the Los Angeles archdiocese and remain canonically attached as priests to the archdiocese.
Some dismissals were delayed until February, he said, to make sure the priests had a supportive environment. “If you just toss them out on the street, and with great trauma, maybe that triggers acting out again, endangers youth again,” Mahony said.
He added that most of the priests agreed that the church had to dismiss them, although it was difficult for some of the men because they had had a clean record since their cases were disposed of by the criminal justice system.
Mahony rejected suggestions by some conservatives in the church that homosexual priests were responsible for much of abuse.
“I think it has nothing to do with homosexuality, heterosexuality or with celibacy,” Mahony said. “It is a problem of sexual maturation on the part of the priest. That’s where the problem is. It doesn’t make any difference who it is or what line of work they’re in.”
Eventually, Mahony said some good will come out of the scandal.
“I’ve been doing a lot of reflection during Holy Week and preparing for Easter,” he said. “Out of all this bad and evil has come some good. Maybe that’s always true in God’s plan,” he said. “The controversy is a purification that will only make the church stronger and more humble and better.”
Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this story.