As many as a dozen Southern California priests who were involved in past sexual abuse cases have been directed by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony to retire or otherwise leave their ministries.
The forced retirements, which church sources said ranged from at least half a dozen to 12 priests, were the latest repercussions in the growing scandal of priestly sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S.
The church's Los Angeles Archdiocese made no public announcement of the dismissals, which occurred during the last two weeks. Numerous efforts seeking comment from officials were unsuccessful.
In a separate case, a popular Orange County priest who admitted molesting a teenage boy 19 years ago bid farewell to his parish Sunday. Father Michael Pecharich was asked to leave last week by the Bishop of Orange, the Most Rev. Tod D. Brown. Pecharich's case had been known to the church since 1996.
None of the priests in the Los Angeles Archdiocese are believed to be involved in any recent cases of sexually abusing minors. Their cases occurred as long as a decade ago, and all had undergone psychological counseling, according to one of the sources.
Nonetheless, since the scandal over the sexual abuse of minors erupted anew in the Boston archdiocese last month, dioceses across the country, including the Diocese of Orange and Diocese of San Bernardino, have been under increasing pressure to rid themselves of any priests with a history of sexual misconduct.
"Boston sent a red alert," said one church source, who asked not to be named because it would aggravate his relations with superiors.
The Catholic Church has been dogged for decades by sporadic complaints of child molestation. But the magnitude of the Boston case and several high-profile settlements of civil suits by the church have drawn unusual attention. In Boston, the archdiocese was found to have known for years about, but failed to act against, a priest who had been accused of molesting 130 children.
As that scandal mushroomed, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston reluctantly turned over to law enforcement officials the names of 80 priests who had been accused of abusing children during the last 40 years. Boston's action was soon followed by similar disclosures in Philadelphia.
In San Bernardino on Sunday, the controversy prompted Bishop Gerald R. Barnes to write an open letter to his parishes seeking to reassure parishioners of his diocese's long-standing policy of removing errant priests. Barnes also spoke on behalf of "good" priests whom he said have been unfairly tarnished by the scandal.
Legal Outlook Is Uncertain
It was unclear Sunday whether the names of any of the priests in the Los Angeles Archdiocese--which includes Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties--would be given to law enforcement authorities, or whether any of the priests planned to appeal their dismissals.
A knowledgeable law enforcement official said it did not appear any of the cases had been previously referred for criminal prosecution by the archdiocese. This official could recall only one referral of a priest for criminal prosecution for molestation in the last several years. He said that case resulted in a conviction.
The archdiocese in past statements has promised to cooperate fully with civil authorities and the legal system. Mahony, the archbishop of Los Angeles, was a member of a national bishops conference committee that recommended such steps.
Nor was it clear why the Los Angeles priests were being asked to leave only now, since the archdiocese has had a stated policy since 1988 to "never deal with a problem of sexual abuse on the part of a priest or deacon by simply moving him to another ministerial assignment."
Sources familiar with Mahony's actions suggested they were prompted not only by the Boston scandal but by a 2001 court settlement in which the Los Angeles archdiocese promised to rid itself of anyone who had been found guilty of sexual abuse in the past, either by an admission or in civil or church proceedings.
That case involved a victim, Ryan DiMaria, who claimed he had been sexually abused as a teenager by a priest at a church high school. The $5.2-million settlement, approved by the dioceses of Los Angeles and Orange, required the church to remove any other employee found to be guilty of sexual abuse.
DiMaria's attorney, Katherine K. Freberg of Irvine, said she was elated by the dismissals.
"This was our very vision: that both Los Angeles and Orange would literally go through their files and determine if they had any priests that have molested someone, and that they get ousted," Freberg said. "I cannot tell you how happy this makes me--and the way it's been played out. I see this as the culmination of all the victims across the country banding together and saying we will no longer live in the secrecy or tolerate the cover-up."
Of the targeted priests in the Los Angeles archdiocese, those who are 62 or older have been asked to retire. Younger priests were told that their status as priests was now "inactive." Those who resided in a parish rectory or other church facility were asked to move out.
In one case, a priest was said to have been given 72 hours to pack his belongings and leave.
In face-to-face meetings with Mahony, the priests were also reportedly asked to consider leaving the priesthood entirely through a process called laicization, a step rarely taken upon retirement, a knowledgeable church source said. They were also offered what one churchman called a "generous" severance package.
Word of the dismissals came a week after Mahony issued a strongly worded pastoral statement published in the archdiocesan weekly newspaper in which he reiterated a "zero tolerance" policy when it comes to sexual abuse of a minor.
Mahony promised that the archdiocese "will not knowingly assign or retain a priest, deacon, religious or layperson to serve in its parishes, schools, pastoral ministries, or any other assignment when such an individual is determined to have previously engaged in the sexual abuse of a minor."
The problem of child sexual abuse by priests threatens not only the church's credibility but its finances. Various estimates by legal experts have suggested the church had paid out hundreds of millions in settlements over the years. The $5.2-million settlement in DiMaria's case last year in Orange County is believed to be the largest sum involving a single individual.
One church source noted that if Mahony were accused of failing to abide by the terms of the DiMaria settlement, his diocese would be liable.
"If he were accused of anything, his pockets are the deepest. He owns everything," the source said. "Now the archbishop is able to answer unequivocally when asked 'are you keeping any sexually abusing priests in your archdiocese?' that the answer is an unequivocal no."
Mahony Voiced Concern to Peers
Mahony became archbishop in 1986, two years before the archdiocese said it adopted a sexual abuse policy. In 1992, Mahony publicly expressed concern about clergy sexual abuse during a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, then known as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Meeting in Washington, the bishops conference hotel was picketed by individuals who said they had been sexually abused as minors by priests. The issue was not on the bishops' agenda, but they quickly consented to a private meeting led by Mahony.
"These were good people who have been deeply wounded by the misconduct of some of our priests," Mahony said in reporting back to the bishops in unscheduled public remarks. "These were people whose faith has been shattered and in some cases lost."
The bishops then voted unanimously to step up efforts to remain vigilant against sexual abuse, but victims complained then that the pledge was inadequate.
As recently as last month, the president of the bishops conference, the Most Rev. Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., renewed the pledge by U.S. bishops to "continue to take all the steps necessary to protect our youth from this kind of abuse in society and in the church."
Gregory said the church was confident that "few" of the nation's 47,000 priests were involved in such conduct. "The damage, however, has been immeasurable. The toll this phenomenon has taken on our people and our ministry is tremendous. This is a time for Catholic people--bishops, clergy, religious and laity--to resolve to work together to assure the safety of our children," Gregory said.
As part of Gregory's statement, the bishops conference announced an Internet site that details church policies and actions taken to fight sexual abuse. That site is www.usccb.org/comm/restoretrust.htm.
How that will play out, however, is a difficult question as individual bishops work to address the injury to and needs of victims and their families, and to care for accused priests.
In Los Angeles, one church source said the ousters suggested the archdiocese had stopped dealing with priest molestation as a treatable mental health problem.
"The mental health model is being set aside and the criminal-justice model is being inserted. So all you have for these priests is a retribution model," the source said. "My fear is the church is going from being careless in treating abused children to being careless in treating abusing priests," the churchman said.
Times staff writers Rosemary McClure and Greg Krikorian contributed to this report.