Parishioners support payout, but some take Mahony to task

Times Staff Writers

Parishioners across the sprawling Los Angeles Archdiocese responded with relief, support and a measure of worry Sunday to news that the church will pay $660 million to victims of clergy sexual abuse, the largest payout to date in the nationwide Roman Catholic molestation crisis.

But some also angrily blamed Cardinal Roger M. Mahony for failing to reach a settlement in the local cases years earlier.

"I'm furious," said Robert Sotelo, a retired West Covina electrician, after hearing Mahony celebrate Mass at the downtown Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. "Why did he take so long?"

Mahony, who made a public apology to victims in a news conference Sunday afternoon, did not directly address the legal settlement during the 10 a.m. Mass. A lay church member did, however, offer a brief prayer for victims of clergy abuse, as well as the homeless, prisoners on death row and others.

Among those attending services Sunday at half a dozen Southland Catholic churches, many said the agreement reached Saturday seemed a fair compromise. The settlement, which will give the priests' accusers an average of $1.3 million each, is expected to be formalized in a Los Angeles courtroom today.

"If the church can afford it, and it won't mean that services or churches will go away, then I think most people will be fine with it," parishioner Alan Bigay, 42, said after morning Mass at St. Genevieve Catholic Church in Panorama City.

But Bigay also said he believed the church and its leadership had been at fault for years in attempting to hide the growing abuse problem by quietly moving troubled priests from one parish to another. "I hope they learned their lesson," he said. "Now we know that it's out in the open."

Many other churchgoers expressed sadness and concern for the accusers, many of whom were children at the time of the alleged abuse. "It won't repair their lives but maybe it will help," said Mauricio Gomez, a 27-year-old contractor, after Mass at the cathedral.

Others spoke with compassion of the priests, brothers and other church employees who have been accused in the cases.

Leticia Fernandez, 45, a parishioner at St. Genevieve, where eight former priests have been accused in cases ranging from 1950 to 2003, said she had struggled to reconcile her loyalty to her faith and her disillusionment with the Catholic hierarchy's handling of the issue.

"When you're dealing with humans, you have to understand that they are flawed," Fernandez, who has attended services at the church for 20 years, said in her native Spanish. "I come here for my relationship with God, to pray and to be a better person. Our church preaches forgiveness and we have to abide by that, even for the men who did these bad things."

Some parishioners said they worried about the archdiocese's ability to pay the huge settlement and wondered if it could hurt the finances of local churches and parishes.

At St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church in Silver Lake, Wilfred Mejia, 42, said he hoped the payout would not affect the parish school where his son, Wilfred Jr., starts seventh grade next month -- or the archdiocese's tradition of providing tuition awards to low-income students.

"There might be some minimal financial crisis there," said Mejia, who said his parents were married at the church.

After an early morning Mass at St. Monica Catholic Church in Santa Monica, parishioner Michael Murray, 56, said he hoped the church could get past the crisis at last. "All you can do is settle the suits and try to move on."

But many Catholics interviewed outside their churches Sunday, while supportive of the settlement, voiced strong anger with Mahony for letting the abuse crisis continue for so long.

At Holy Family Catholic Church, a congregation of 4,000 families in South Pasadena, several said they were particularly concerned with how Mahony dealt with some of the priests and then fought legal efforts to unseal church records about the cases.

"I'm really upset that Mahony knew about these things and just sent the priests to other churches," said Jose-Amparo Garcia, 49, of Highland Park as he finished his coffee and doughnut in the church courtyard. "Now all this money has to be wasted for things that shouldn't have happened. We could have built new schools or parks for the children instead."

Garcia said his criticism of Mahony and other bishops has created tensions with his wife, who urges him to faithfully follow church leadership. But the Mexican native said he avidly clips news articles, reads books and speaks out on the sex scandal "on behalf of the children who have no voice."

"One of the abused children could have been mine," he said.

Lino Cicone, 70, of Arcadia, a native of Italy, said he supported the settlement. "I think it's great. If it can help the people who suffered for many years, it's money well spent."

But he criticized Mahony and other church leaders for their handling of the crisis. "Mahony was just copping out and trying to think of every excuse in the book" to avoid accountability for the scandal, Cicone said.

Inside the parish hall, three women castigated the cardinal, saying they knew people who have reduced their contributions to the archdiocese because of his actions. The women, who asked for anonymity because they feared church repercussions for their criticism, were divided on whether the settlement was a "payoff" to quiet the victims or a genuine church effort to own up to its responsibility.

"It's unconscionable what Mahony has done, how he circumvented the law," one woman said. "Sealing the records was infuriating. What other group of citizens could get away with this?"

At several parishes, priests informed their congregations of the settlement during services, with most providing few details and little comment.

But at St. Teresa of Avila, Msgr. Joseph Hernandez told parishioners that although the truth about some of the cases might never be known, certain things were clear. "There are some guys who have betrayed us," the priest said. "It is our burden ... to take care of that."

teresa.watanabe@ latimes.com

rebecca.trounson@latimes.com

jeffrey.rabin@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Francisco Vara-Orta and Ari Bloomekatz contributed to this report.

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