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Mahony Asks Forgiveness for Handling of Scandal

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Acknowledging his own shortcomings in handling sexual abuse by the clergy, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony on Sunday asked “for forgiveness” from Southern California Catholics “for not understanding earlier the extent of the problem” or acting sooner to remove priests who abused minors.

Reading a pastoral letter at a Mass at his childhood parish in North Hollywood, Mahony also told parishioners that he deeply apologized to “members of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and especially to the victims of clergy sexual abuse.”

“I ask for your forgiveness for not understanding earlier the extent of the problem, and for not taking swifter action to remove from the ministry anyone who had abused a minor in the past,” Mahony said, reading from a two-page letter that was read to congregations at the 287 churches throughout the three-county archdiocese.

“The crisis has caused me many sleepless nights filled with concern for the victims, as well as sadness and anger toward those priests who have preyed upon the most vulnerable among us--our children.”

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At St. Charles Borromeo Church, some parishioners called the cardinal’s letter his most forthright statement yet on past errors and how to ensure that children never fear for their safety in the church again. “I think it is great [the cardinal] is trying to be as upfront with people,” said Tom Soule of Los Angeles.

Another parishioner, John Adair of Los Angeles, said Mahony’s pastoral letter seeks forgiveness for the past and offers a vision to improve the future. “It goes some of the way to addressing the hurt felt by many Catholics,” he said.

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‘Zero Tolerance’ Policy

Mahony’s letter to parishioners in the nation’s largest archdiocese is his first since the U.S. Conference of Bishops in Dallas adopted a “zero tolerance” policy for clergy abuse nationwide.

During Sunday’s Mass, Mahony said such a policy was already in place in the Los Angeles Archdiocese. It was instituted after the settlement of a lawsuit with a victim last year.

When asked about the letter Mahony read, Mary Grant, Southern California regional director for Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said the cardinal is “cranking up the PR campaign because he does not want to end up like Cardinal [Bernard] Law.” A grand jury is examining whether Law covered up cases of clergy abuse in Boston.

“The only reason Cardinal Mahony is doing anything is because he got caught covering it,” Grant said. “It is like a public plea bargain: ‘Please don’t call it a cover-up. It was just a mistake.’ ”

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Mahony made no mention Sunday about specific priests he has transferred after learning they had been accused of sexual misconduct.

Mahony transferred Father Michael Stephen Baker to several parishes after the priest told him in 1986 that he had molested young boys. He later approved a secret $1.3-million settlement with two men who had allegedly been abused by Baker in the 1990s.

Mahony has admitted he erred in transferring Father Michael Wempe, who is accused of molesting children, to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center about 14 years ago without telling hospital officials about the accusations.

Mahony forced Baker to retire in 2000 and Wempe to retire this year. A grand jury has subpoenaed from the archdiocese all documents related to Baker and Wempe. They are among more than 50 current and former priests under investigation in the archdiocese. Nine grand juries are examining priest abuse nationwide.

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Before reading the letter Sunday, Mahony told parishioners that no message is stronger in the Gospels than the message of forgiveness, that every Mass begins with an acknowledgment of everyone’s sinfulness and that the church is made up of human beings.

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Church Is a ‘Safe Place’

“Our church is safe. It is a safe place most especially for the most vulnerable of vulnerable,” he told St. Charles parishioners.

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“I can assure you today that as far as is humanly possible to know, there is no priest serving in ministry in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles who has abused a minor even one time,” Mahony said later in the letter. “Moreover, I pledge to all of you that I will never knowingly allow a priest who has abused a minor to be reassigned to any ministry.”

Archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg said a “handful” of priests under investigation are still with the archdiocese; they have been removed from active church work and placed on temporary administrative leave pending the criminal investigation.

Since returning from Dallas, Mahony told parishioners, he has expanded the membership and powers of an existing board whose members examine accusations of sexual misconduct by priests. Establishing such boards was among the changes agreed upon by the bishops in Dallas. Mahony said he will seek to laicize all priests found guilty of abusing a minor--a position the bishops declined to take.

St. Charles parishioners greeted the conclusion of Mahony’s pastoral letter with gentle applause.

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“It was a well thought out letter, very direct and to the point,” said Sami Kawaratani of Sherman Oaks. She said she agrees with Mahony that the scandal is part of the process of renewal for the church, one that eventually will make it stronger.

“Finally, something has been done,” said Thamara Mendez of North Hollywood. “It does not matter how long it took.”


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