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Legal and moral cloud still shadows Mahony

Times Staff Writers

Inside a tense, packed Los Angeles courtroom Monday, more than a dozen men and women rose slowly and stood, some weeping softly, as they were publicly recognized by the court and others as victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy.

The moment, which came just after the Los Angeles Archdiocese and plaintiffs’ attorneys reached formal agreement on a $660-million settlement in hundreds of clergy abuse cases, provided a dramatic denouement to five years of litigation -- and to what many victims have described as decades of personal anguish.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Jul. 18, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 18, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Abuse settlement: An article in Tuesday’s Section A about the settlement by the Los Angeles Archdiocese of sexual abuse lawsuits said a chair known as a cathedra symbolized Cardinal Roger M. Mahony’s authority as a cardinal. The cathedra symbolizes his authority as a bishop.

When plaintiffs’ lead attorney Raymond Boucher asked the victims in the downtown courtroom to rise, some did so timidly, and he had to ask again. Once all were standing, the only sound was that of crying, which seemed to become more intense as the moment went on. A few feet away at a table with church attorneys sat Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, his expression somber.

Afterward, dozens of victims, their attorneys and supporters, many still wiping away tears, congratulated and hugged one another.

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Spilling outside into a plaza near the courthouse, they spoke with reporters, told their stories and celebrated what some described as a significant -- and bittersweet -- legal victory.

Monday had been what Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Haley J. Fromholz had called “D Day” -- the date set for trials of clergy abuse cases to begin. Instead, the hearing before Fromholz allowed attorneys for both sides to formally confirm that they had reached the $660-million settlement.

Steve Sanchez, who said he was molested at Holy Trinity Church for about a decade, was among those who said they felt vindicated by the settlement.

“I hope that by today’s settlement, I am no longer an ‘alleged’ victim,” said Sanchez, who said he was molested by Father Clinton Hagenbach, a parish priest, now deceased.

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Sanchez’s case was set for trial Monday.

Many other victims, not all of whom could squeeze into the courtroom for the hearing, said they remained bitterly angry over the abuse they suffered and the long delay in reaching a legal resolution.

Many directed their anger at Mahony, who publicly apologized Sunday to those abused. After Monday’s hearing, he issued a statement reaffirming his “steadfast commitment” to fighting sexual abuse.

During the hearing, diocesan attorney J. Michael Hennigan alluded to the years it had taken to resolve the case. “First of all, to all the victims who are here, it is our deep regret this took too long,” Hennigan said.

“Not accepted,” one man responded, to a rumble of agreement from others in the courtroom.

“This is a hearing,” the judge said in admonishment, raising his hand to keep order.

Outside the hearing, Rita Milla, who said she was sexually abused by seven Catholic priests beginning when she was 16, and impregnated by one of them, said that Mahony and other leaders of the diocese had been let off the hook.

“What Mahony did today is a lot worse than what [the abusers] did to me,” said Milla, surrounded by fellow victims.

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Lee Bashforth, now an Orange County financial planner who said he was molested for nearly 10 years by former priest Michael Wempe, said he would never forgive Mahony or other Catholic leaders who shielded such problematic clergy.

“They sacrificed us -- and we were children -- to keep themselves in good standing with the church,” said Bashforth, whose eyes filled with tears as he spoke. Mahony “ceded his moral authority a long time ago,” he said.

Like many of the others, Bashforth held a childhood photograph of himself taken about the time he said the molestations began. Snapped at his first Communion, the photo showed a young Bashforth in a blue suit, standing next to his abuser, Wempe.

Nearby, members of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a victims’ support group, displayed quilts bearing images of the youthful faces of dozens of those who had brought accusations against Catholic clergy in the abuse cases.

“The monetary thing -- it’s not the reason that people wanted to do this,” said Lorenzo Najera, who said he was abused by Father John Santillan from the age of 12 at Santa Teresita Church in Boyle Heights. “It’s more about the church accepting that there was wrong done and that there were a lot of molestations involving a lot of people. My biggest drive is to keep this from happening to others.”

Not far away, Jim Baldridge, 46, who said he was molested by Hagenbach from the age of 8 through high school, was among those who found the settlement a mixed blessing. He said it would help many victims begin the process of recovering but also said he regretted that the truth about many of the cases might never be known.

Baldridge, who served as an altar boy, said the abuse -- and the length of the litigation -- had destroyed his faith.

“The whole time, it’s been adversarial,” he said. “I was everything a good Catholic boy should be, and all those things I did, as a good Catholic boy, got me hurt.”

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Baldridge said he had declined a chance to meet with Mahony last month. “He could have ended this a long time ago,” Baldridge said.

Another of the victims, James C. Robertson, gained notoriety in 2005 when to protest the archdiocese’s handling of the scandal, he handcuffed himself to the cathedra -- the chair that symbolizes Mahony’s authority as cardinal -- during a Sunday Mass at the downtown cathedral.

On Monday, Robertson, who said he was molested by two Catholic brothers at a Gardena high school in the 1960s, also criticized the settlement. “The church is getting off cheap,” he said, speaking outside the courthouse. “If church leaders actually cared about healing, they’d ask the victims to speak to groups -- parents, children and students -- about our stories and let them know this was wrong.”

Robertson said he feared that once the media attention over the settlement and its details dies away, such problems could continue. He said he would try to keep clergy abuse in the spotlight.

“Today is the last day of our 15 minutes of fame,” he said. “For the church, it’s just another bill, and their power and authority still remain.”

As for Mahony, he did not speak during the 45-minute hearing. After it ended and the victims surged into the hall, one man in the back of the crowd was heard asking, “Is the cardinal going to come out?”

He did not. The cardinal, who had entered the courtroom through a side door, left the same way. In his statement, Mahony said he would spend the afternoon praying for the victims.

rebecca.trounson@latimes.com

tami.abdollah@latimes.com

francisco.varaorta@ latimes.com


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