They arrived at the civil courthouse in downtown Los Angeles with their spouses, their parents, girlfriends or siblings. One group of childhood friends, now in their 50s, came together; as girls, they had been molested by the same priest.
Some sought an apology, others reconciliation. And some just hoped to vent their outrage and be heard, directly, by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, who has headed the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles since 1985.
“I wanted to speak on behalf of myself and others who couldn’t do it for themselves,” said Mark Gauer, 47, who said in a lawsuit he was sexually abused by a priest at his Catholic school, Los Angeles’ Daniel Murphy High School.
For the last year, as attorneys have battled over the size and details of an ultimately record-breaking clergy abuse settlement by the Los Angeles Archdiocese, Mahony has met individually with more than 70 of those who sued him. The purpose, according to Minnesota lawyer Jeffrey Anderson, who helped develop the protocol for such meetings in dioceses across the country, is to allow the abuse survivors to be heard and for the Catholic authority figure to experience the victims’ pain.
“If they want to speak, it’s only to apologize, not to explain,” said Anderson, a clergy abuse litigation pioneer who represented some of the Los Angeles plaintiffs. “They are there to listen.”
As Mahony announced the $660-million agreement two weeks ago, he said the sessions had helped him understand the human toll of the abuse and had propelled him toward a settlement.
Through his spokesman, Tod M. Tamberg, Mahony declined last week to speak further about the meetings, except to say that more are scheduled. “He has said he will meet with any victim who wants to meet with him,” Tamberg said.
Some plaintiffs say they have no desire to do so. “I would relish an opportunity to tell Mahony, one-on-one, what I think of him,” said Lee Bashforth, 37, who said in his lawsuit that he was molested by former priest Michael Wempe for nearly 10 years, beginning when Bashforth was 7. “But that would mean playing into [Mahony’s] massive P.R. machine, and I refuse to do that.”
Representatives of a victims support group, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said they have cautioned members against meeting with Mahony, saying such discussions could cause them further harm. And at least two attorneys representing multiple plaintiffs in the latest settlement also have discouraged their clients, saying they do not believe the meetings are beneficial.
But dozens of other abuse victims have met with Mahony, in sessions primarily arranged by lawyer Raymond Boucher’s office and mediated by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles W. McCoy. Boucher was lead attorney for the plaintiffs. The meetings have taken place in McCoy’s chambers, and several victims who participated praised the judge for his sensitive handling of the often tense, emotional discussions.
In interviews since the July 16 settlement, eight abuse survivors spoke about the meetings, their reasons for attending and their views of what took place. Some of them asked that their full names be withheld or that only their initials be used to protect their privacy.
Although their reactions varied -- some said they found the sessions healing; others said they were unable to forgive Mahony or the church he represents -- none said they regretted taking part.
Erin Brady, a 48-year-old public schoolteacher in the San Gabriel Valley, said that Mahony was “not compassionate” in their mid-February meeting but that the session nonetheless served a purpose.
“I felt good that I was able to say what I wanted to say,” said Brady, who claimed in her lawsuit that she was abused by a priest at Immaculate Conception Church in Monrovia from age 8 to 11. “It wasn’t good for me because of Mahony, but he did sit there and take it from me -- and I was not easy on him. I give him credit for that.”
Brady and several others said they had used the meetings to berate Mahony for what they described as his role in shielding abusive priests from justice and in unnecessarily delaying a legal settlement during 4 1/2 years of negotiations.
“Jesus wouldn’t have an attorney,” Gauer said he told Mahony in a 90-minute meeting in March. “ ‘This should have been settled a long time ago,’ I told him.”
Gauer, whose father was head of the archdiocese’s Holy Name Society and a spokesman for the Citizens for Decency Through Law, an anti-pornography group, said he told Mahony how he was abused at the age of 14 at hotels, where he had gone with the priest on business trips.
According to Gauer’s wife, Cecilia, who attended the meeting, Mahony said a few times: “I really do feel bad this happened to you.”
“His words were, ‘I will take responsibility for what has happened,’ ” she said. “But he never said ‘I’m sorry.’ ”
Still, Gauer said the session “was worth about a year’s worth of therapy.”
Another victim, Mary Dispenza, a retired nun who was raped by Father George Rucker in the auditorium of St. Alphonsus school when she was 7, said she told the cardinal when she met him, “I wonder what Jesus would have done in your shoes.”
Dispenza, 67, said the cardinal told her that once he became familiar with her abuser’s personnel file, he was shocked to learn that the priest had remained in ministry so long. Rucker, who retired from Corpus Christi Church in Pacific Palisades within a year of Mahony’s arrival to head the Los Angeles archdiocese, was banned from public ministry by Mahony five years ago.
“We are all as sick as our secrets,” Dispenza recalled telling Mahony in response. “And an organization is as sick as its secrets. The church must bring this dark chapter to light.”
She said he listened, later telling her of the safeguards the Los Angeles archdiocese and others have adopted in recent years to prevent further abuse of children.
In response, she began to paraphrase a verse from the Bible, saying that for anyone who harmed a child, “it is better for him to have a millstone fastened around his neck and be cast into the sea.” Mahony finished reciting the passage with her. At the end of the session, they embraced.
Not all the sessions went so well.
Dominic Zamora, 34, his parents, Frank and Virginia, and his girlfriend Tamara Brantley filed into the late-afternoon meeting in May, shunning the cardinal, who offered his hand to them.
“I pulled my hand down and said ‘I ain’t got words for you,’ ” said Dominic Zamora, who said he blames his history of alcoholism, drug abuse and stints in jail on the childhood abuse. “I told Mahony, ‘I didn’t dress up like this to impress you. I dressed up because I have respect for the judge.’ ”
Zamora’s family, in a lawsuit, said Dominic was abused by Michael Stephen Baker. The now-defrocked priest said in interviews with The Times that he told Mahony in 1986 that he had a problem with sexual abuse but that the cardinal allowed him to stay in ministry after treatment and later transferred him to nine other parishes. He is accused of molesting 23 boys and girls between 1974 and 1999.
Over nearly two hours, Zamora said, Mahony repeatedly apologized, telling the family that he considered Baker his worst problem.
At one point, the cardinal asked Zamora what he wanted from him, according to Zamora’s father. “Dominic told him, ‘You can’t bring me my childhood back,’ ” the father said.
“He says to forgive and forget,” Dominic added. “I said, ‘I ain’t at no AA meeting.’ ”
The Zamora family said Mahony was silent and looked down through most of the session, playing with his fingers.
“I asked him, ‘What would you do if it’d been a family member on your side? What would you do?’ ” Virginia Zamora said. “You’d want that person to get locked up and the key thrown away.”
Mahony, she said, made no response.
Two sisters, Elizabeth, 56, and Mary, 51, arrived full of anger for their February meeting. But they said they felt a real connection with Mahony as he looked through old photographs that showed them, as children, with their abuser, Brother Joe Stadtfeld. In one, the monk was holding Elizabeth, then in grade school, on his lap, giving her a kiss.
They also shared with the cardinal several letters from Stadtfeld, who died in 1995, asking for their forgiveness. “No longer did it feel like we were alleged victims,” Elizabeth said of the meeting. “We felt that [Mahony] believed, that he believed that this happened.”
Mary also told Mahony that she hoped to return to some form of spirituality but that because of the abuse, she could no longer believe in the Catholic church.
The response from the leader of L.A.'s Catholics surprised her. “He said to me, ‘The Catholic church is not the only church,’ ” Mary said.
Other victims also arrived for their meetings furious with the church and with Mahony, they said.
“I went there very cynical, very angry at the church and at what had happened to me,” said A.L., 43, a Los Angeles career counselor who was abused for seven years, starting at age 6, by Rucker and who met Mahony in June 2006. “But when we were in that room together, it was the most amazing experience. Mahony was moved by what I said, and it was healing, absolutely healing for me.”
The woman said she forced herself to speak frankly to the cardinal about the trauma caused by the abuse, including her difficulty with intimacy and with forms of touching she cannot bear. “It was very uncomfortable for us both, but I told him this will cause me problems for the rest of my life,” she said.
As she spoke, Mahony’s eyes reddened and filled with tears, she said. “He was moved and I was moved by his response,” she said. “I don’t blame him for the abuse itself. I was angry with him for the whole thing, for not stopping [Rucker], for not stopping the others.”
She said she was certain after meeting Mahony that he regretted his mistakes and those of the church in the abuse scandal. She asked if she could hug him and did so, as the session ended.
“I saw a human side to this person, and I can forgive and let it go,” she said.