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Molestation Scandal Wrenched Church Hierarchy and Faithful

Times Staff Writer

The agonies of the Roman Catholic Church, which was wracked by a yearlong sexual-abuse scandal, overshadowed other religion news in California in 2002, and even muted the September opening of the church’s $189-million cathedral in downtown Los Angeles.

Among the stories relegated to near-footnote status this year:

* A plan by Catholic bishops to better serve Spanish-speaking parishioners and bring more Latino priests into church leadership.

* A legal tussle over the annual Hollywood Bowl Easter sunrise service. The evangelical Trinity Broadcasting Network of Orange County won rights to televise the service, and then withdrew in the ensuing controversy -- too late for organizers to restore traditional broadcast arrangements.

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* A district judge’s ruling in a widely watched case that temporarily barred Cypress from seizing a church’s land for redevelopment.

* The continued integration of the Muslim community into Southern California’s interfaith movement and general society, a trend that symbolically could be seen two days before the Sept. 11 anniversary at an interreligious prayer service at the Islamic Society of Orange County mosque. American Muslim leaders honored more than 20 people outside their faith who came to their defense after the terrorist attacks in New York and at the Pentagon.

Nationally, the Catholic Church scandal also swamped other religious news. In a vote this month by the members of the Religious Newswriters Assn., four of the year’s top five stories involved sexual abuse by Catholic priests or the fallout. The fifth story was the controversy generated by Franklin Graham and other evangelical ministers who called Islam evil.

Since January -- when abuse by priests in Boston and a cardinal’s cover-up were first exposed -- the scandal has engulfed the U.S. Catholic Church. Aggressive plaintiffs’ attorneys, empowered victims and their advocates, outraged laity, an entrenched church hierarchy and a relentless news media all played roles.

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The storm left in its path the resignations of Cardinal Bernard F. Law and two bishops, hundreds of lawsuits, multimillion-dollar settlements, priests in handcuffs, public apologies from prelates, new church codes of justice for victims, increased power for the laity and threats of church bankruptcy.

“Much as I tend to avoid such inflated rhetoric, any sober assessment would rank it as the greatest scandal in the history of the American Catholic Church,” said Father John Coleman, a professor of theological studies and social values at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

In California, the impact of the scandal could become stronger starting this week. A new state law takes effect Wednesday that will temporarily lift the statute of limitations on many lawsuits against the church. Lawyers for the 12 dioceses in the state say they expect hundreds of suits to be filed.

Southern California has already been among the regions hit hardest by the scandal.

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In early March, word leaked that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles had quietly acted on a court-imposed zero-tolerance policy and let go seven priests with molestations in their past. Two were convicted sex offenders. The Diocese of Orange fired one priest.

The revelations about the ousted priests triggered a months-long tug-of-war between Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and law enforcement officials over church personnel records.

Part of the church’s behind-the-scenes struggle with the tangle of legal issues was revealed in April when a series of confidential e-mails written by Mahony and others within his inner circle were leaked to radio station KFI.

In the communications, church leaders worried about the public relations fallout of the scandal advised Mahony to remain vague about where the seven priests served before they were fired, and gave instructions to limit responses to police queries.

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One e-mail showed tension between Mahony and his advisors. The cardinal was so upset by the failure to turn over the names of several dismissed priests to police that he warned his general counsel he might be subpoenaed.

“If we don’t, today, ‘consult’ with the [detective] about those three names, I can guarantee you that I will get hauled into a grand jury proceeding and I will be forced to give all the names, etc.,” Mahony wrote to his top lawyer, Sister Judith Murphy.

Also contained in one of the e-mails was news that authorities were investigating a claim by a Fresno woman with a history of mental problems that Mahony had molested her many years ago. Within three weeks, the cardinal, who denied the allegations, was cleared by police.

Mahony used this incident at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in June to argue that accusations can easily be proved false, and that a tough set of reforms, including a one-strike provision for priests who sexually abuse minors, should be enacted.

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The bishops agreed and overwhelmingly voted for the new standards.

A second molestation allegation was leveled against Mahony in June by a man who said he was sexually abused 20 years ago in Stockton, where Mahony was a bishop. But in September, Stockton police arrested Loren Mitchell Saffels on suspicion of extortion and filing a false police report.

Still, Mahony’s relationship with law enforcement remained rocky. Since June, the Los Angeles County Grand Jury has issued subpoenas for files on at least 17 priests. The archdiocese agreed, but the priests’ attorney has blocked the release, pending a ruling from an appellate court.

And last month, Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury demanded that Mahony surrender documents related to at least 15 clergy sex-abuse cases.

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In a strongly worded letter, Bradbury told Mahony that despite promises to assist law enforcement, the nation’s largest archdiocese “remains an obstacle, protecting priests while endangering future victims.”

Archdiocesan officials said they had turned over all of the information in their possession.

According to Los Angeles law enforcement agencies, about 70 current and former priests are under investigation.

In September, authorities made the first of a series of arrests involving priests or former clerics charged with molestation. Since then, six more Los Angeles-area priests have been arrested on sexual-abuse charges, including an 82-year-old retiree who was plucked off a cruise ship in Alaska in September.

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One former Orange County priest, wanted by authorities in two states on more than 40 felony counts, is eluding authorities.

Details of sexual abuse, emerging mostly in lawsuits, have sickened, saddened and angered both Catholics and non-Catholics. The relentless drumbeat of the scandal marred the opening of the $189-million Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles in September. Partly because of the scandal and partly because of money woes, the ceremonies surrounding the grand opening were toned down.

Less than a week after the opening, the archdiocese unexpectedly announced a series of budget cuts that included the elimination of seven church ministries, retrenchment in others and layoffs of at least 60 workers. Protests from priests and others followed, along with the resignation of Mahony’s top five lieutenants.

The archdiocese has refused to release its financial statements since the scandal broke, making it impossible to determine how much of the red ink is the result of sexual-abuse settlements or a decrease in donations.

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The much smaller Diocese of Orange said in November that it had lost $28 million in the last two years, some of it because of payouts to sexual abuse victims, but mostly because of stock-market losses.

The archdiocese reported one piece of good news in December, announcing that its parishioners had pledged $16 million to aid needy parishes and schools -- the highest figure in the annual fund-raising campaign’s 10-year history.


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