Cooley’s office defends handling of L.A. archdiocese abuse investigation

In its eight-year investigation of sexual abuse by clergymen, Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley’s office has found information suggesting possible “criminal culpability” by leaders of the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese, but lacks enough evidence to bring charges, according to a memorandum released Tuesday.

The document, written by the prosecutor who heads the investigation, William Hodgman, says statutes of limitations make the “prospect of developing any criminal case” against archdiocese officials “more and more remote with each passing day.”

As Cooley enters the final week of his campaign to become the Republican nominee for California attorney general, his office provided the memo to The Times in response to questions about how he has handled the archdiocese investigation.

Some sections of the three-page document are redacted, including a passage that apparently expands on statements that investigators have unearthed material raising the possibility that members of the archdiocese hierarchy engaged in criminal behavior, such as a “continuing conspiracy” to cover up sexual assaults or commit child endangerment.

Archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg said in an e-mail that “any suggestion of criminal conduct is totally false and without factual basis.”

Advocates for victims of abusive priests have faulted Cooley’s stewardship of the investigation, saying he should have pressed harder to determine if Cardinal Roger Mahony or other high-ranking church officials had sought to conceal criminal conduct. The advocates say they suspect Cooley has been worried about alienating Catholic voters.

“Cooley should have done more,” said David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “It comes down to political will and courage.”

In an interview last week, Cooley denied acting out of any political considerations and said critics “should be very pleased with how well this office pursued — aggressively pursued” the church investigation.

He said the inquiry has “looked at” whether Mahony violated any laws, but “there was not evidence that would support any theory of criminal culpability” within the statutes of limitations.

In the May 26 memo, Hodgman says that the investigation “has proceeded on the premise that we will go where the evidence leads us,” and that “the resolve of this office to prosecute clergy sexual abuse offenders has not diminished.”

Hodgman says that investigators are working on new allegations involving at least one priest, who was not identified. He also notes that the office had filed charges against 11 clergymen, but the cases were dropped after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 sharply limited the scope of a California law that extended the statute of limitations in certain circumstances.

The office subsequently obtained convictions in six priest prosecutions.

Federal authorities have launched a separate conspiracy investigation of the archdiocese, according to officials who have spoken anonymously because of grand jury secrecy rules.