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The Amazing ‘Teflon Cardinal’

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In 1998, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony was a central figure in one of the most notorious sex-abuse trials in Catholic church history.

The case involved two Stockton-area brothers who had been abused by a priest from the time they were toddlers until they were in their late teens, both before and after the Stockton diocese had received complaints against the priest.

A jury was so disturbed by the drama that unfolded in San Joaquin County Superior Court, it awarded $30 million in damages to the brothers, an amount later negotiated to $7 million.

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Mahony was not a defendant in the case, but he was the bishop of Stockton during a critical period addressed in the lawsuit. He had ordered an evaluation after the priest himself admitted he was a molester, then reassigned him to another parish, where he abused victims for years to come.

“Mahony is the Teflon cardinal,” says Jeff Anderson, who represented the victims and was amazed that Mahony’s reputation in Los Angeles was scarcely tainted by the Stockton verdict, which at the time was the largest-ever per-person settlement in such a case.

One witness at that trial, Nancy Sloan of Fairfield in Solano County, says that to this day, she doesn’t know how Mahony can sleep at night.

“I’m absolutely convinced Mahony knew all about the priest,” says Sloan, now 37, who was abused by the same priest years before he abused the two brothers and many others.

Mahony, who insisted at trial that he was unaware of all the allegations against the priest, did not answer my request for an interview on the subject. But a review of the transcripts, which seemed prudent in light of the growing church scandal in Los Angeles and other cities, reveals a staggeringly familiar pattern: A priest who was a known molester kept getting shuffled from one parish to another, claiming more victims along the way.

In this case, the priest was Father Oliver O’Grady. Nancy Sloan says that in 1976, when she was 11, Father O’Grady molested her. Father O’Grady wrote a letter of apology to her parents, who met with church officials. Sloan deeply regrets that her parents didn’t notify the police, and, of course, the diocese didn’t call the authorities, either.

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“My parents went to the bishop [one of Mahony’s predecessors], because they trusted him to do what was right,” Sloan says. What was “right,” by diocesan standards, was to pay for Sloan’s therapy, file the incident away, and leave it at that.

Four years later, when Mahony was bishop, an entirely unrelated case came before him. He became aware of an “improper relationship” between Father O’Grady and the mother of the brothers who would later be the subjects of the $30-million verdict. Mahony claimed he was unaware of a report that O’Grady was seen alone with one of the brothers, who was then 2. But he told O’Grady not to see the woman again, and later transferred him.

Now we come to 1984, when O’Grady himself confessed that he was a molester. According to the police report, the priest told a county medical practitioner “he had contact of a sexual nature approximately two weeks ago and other past behaviors of a similar nature.” O’Grady also told the medical practitioner that he had touched the penis of one of the brothers, then 9, while the boy slept. Police began a child-abuse investigation that ended when the boy could not confirm the abuse.

The police report says the diocesan attorney assured police they “interviewed the suspect and feel the incident only occurred once and is an isolated incident. The suspect will be sent to counseling through the church.”

Less than one month later, Mahony transferred O’Grady again, this time to a church in San Andreas. In a letter dated Dec. 10, 1984, Mahony said, “I commit you to the full care of souls in that parish with all faculties, duties, rights, and privileges.... “

For the next several years, O’Grady continued to molest his 1984 victim and as many as 10 others, according to attorney Anderson. Finally, in 1993, after being molested for years, a 19-year-old victim went to the police. Father O’Grady was criminally convicted and sentenced to 14 years in prison.

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At the civil trial that followed, Mahony took the witness stand and denied any knowledge of the 1976 molestation of Nancy Sloan, denied knowing about the 1982 report of O’Grady being alone with a 2-year-old, denied knowing the full extent of O’Grady’s molestation confession in 1984, and denied ordering his attorney to tell Stockton police there was only one known incident.

“When I was informed,” Mahony testified regarding the 1984 incident, “I was not informed that this priest had admitted to molesting a child. That was not the information I was given. I was operating under the assumption that an allegation had been made, been thoroughly investigated, and dismissed.”

Plaintiffs’ attorneys tried to chip away at Mahony, expressing disbelief that the bishop of a small diocese of fewer than 100 priests would be unfamiliar with the entire file on a priest who had admitted molesting an 11-year-old girl and a 9-year-old boy. They asked how it was possible that a bishop could not know every detail of a police investigation that took place on his watch. But Mahony stood his ground, insisting that his underlings often handled such matters for him.

Mahony testified that he ordered a psychiatric evaluation of O’Grady after the 1984 incident, and was satisfied with the results, even though the report said: “Father O’Grady reveals a severe defect in maturation. Not only in the matter of sex, but more importantly in the matter of social relationships, and shows a serious psychological depression.”

There were positive recommendations as well, Mahony testified, and he was comfortable that with further counseling, Father O’Grady was fit to continue in ministry.

During a break in his testimony, Mahony spoke to reporters outside the courtroom, telling them he thought the diocese did everything humanly possible to make sure there was no problem with O’Grady before sending him to San Andreas in December of 1984. When court resumed, attorney Anderson repeated the cardinal’s statement about doing everything humanly possible, then asked:

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“At the time, Cardinal, did you talk to the police?”

“No,” Mahony said.

“You could have.”

“Well, I’m not sure I could have. But .... “

“What was restraining you?” Anderson asked.

It went on like this for several minutes, Anderson knocking down Mahony’s claim that everything humanly possible had been done to prevent future abuse.

Did you send O’Grady to a doctor specializing in sex offense? he asked.

“At the time, I was really unaware that there were such specialists,” Mahony said.

Did you check O’Grady’s file?

No, Mahony said.

Did you conduct an investigation of your own?

Sending him to a psychiatrist seemed appropriate enough, Mahony answered.

Did you interview witnesses? Anderson asked.

No, Mahony said, but the police did in 1984, “and dismissed the case.”

In 1986, after Mahony’s move to Los Angeles, Nancy Sloan returned to the Stockton diocese because she was wracked with guilt for not making sure Father O’Grady never got near another child. O’Grady was still at the church Mahony had sent him to, but church officials told Sloan there was nothing to worry about. Sloan, a nurse, weeps as she tells her story.

“If I had any idea whatsoever when I had gone back there in 1986, there are so many children who could have been saved from O’Grady, because I would have blown the story out. And if Mahony says he didn’t know anything about O’Grady, my question is, how could you possibly do your job as bishop and not read any of the files on your employees?”

Sloan says she has thought about paying a visit to Mahony.

“I’d like to tell him he has a moral obligation. If any of these bishops and priests would take responsibility instead of pretending they didn’t know what was going on, and then making excuses ... ,” she says, not finishing the thought, and pausing to compose herself.

“I have so much guilt for not doing more,” she says. “I don’t know how Mahony can live with himself when I can barely live with myself.”

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Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at steve.lopez@latimes.com.

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