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Cardinal goal was protecting Mahony

So, on the eve of being called to testify in the first L.A. clergy abuse trial, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony settled with 508 claimants for a staggering $660 million, the largest such settlement in the entire country.

Was anyone surprised?

If so, God help you.

All along, the Los Angeles Archdiocese -- which was once compared to La Cosa Nostra by the head of a Catholic review board -- had one primary objective.

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The truth? Not a chance.

Justice? Forget about it.

The top priority?

Keep Mahony off the stand.

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Under oath, he would have been forced to explain exactly what he knew about the scandal and what he did, or didn’t do, in response.

Apparently, that’s not something the cardinal wants anyone ever to know.

Kind of scary, isn’t it?

As for the victims, I know it would have been hard to find a consensus among 500 litigants, but I would have preferred to see them hold off on a settlement until after Mahony was forced to squirm his way through a trial or two.

Roger the Dodger has already admitted -- albeit without much detail -- that he left five priests in the ministry despite complaints of molestation. And my newspaper has counted 11 other cases in which priests stayed on the job despite parishioners’ concerns about inappropriate behavior with children.

Although the settlement agreement requires the archdiocese to turn over internal documents to a judge who will decide which ones go public, Mahony said he still considers some files “privileged” under the law. Prosecutors and victim attorneys, who have fought for years to get the good cardinal to come clean, don’t necessarily agree.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley described Mahony’s surrender of documents as “giving with one hand and taking away with the other.”

Whether additional criminal charges against clergy will ever be filed is still uncertain, Cooley said, given legal challenges, including the statute of limitations.

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But he didn’t rule out the possibility, and called inquiries into church activities “active.”

The archdiocese has spent untold millions on PR and legal fees, on top of the huge settlements.

“Where does that money come from?” asked Richard Sipe, a former priest and an expert witness on church scandal and clergy abuse. “That comes from parishioners, and they have a right to know.”

It comes from the hardworking employees of the archdiocese, as well.

I have a copy of a June 18 memo from top administrators to department heads informing them that lay staff will receive no raises this year because of “the seriousness of the financial crisis the archdiocese is facing due to the impending settlements.”

Perhaps the church could have avoided squeezing the staff -- as well as the sale of property -- if it hadn’t spent a fortune on spin and legal fees over the last several years.

But as I said, this was never about money. It was about protecting Mahony’s image.

“I didn’t know what to do next,” Mahony said at a news conference this past weekend. “Everything I did, someone thought was wrong. When you’re empty, the only way up is God.”

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Still don’t know what to do next, cardinal?

Tell the truth, and all of it.

Protect children, not criminals, and certainly not yourself.

And if you still have to ask, maybe it’s time to step down.

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Reach the columnist at steve.lopez@latimes.com and read previous columns at latimes.com/lopez


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