When he took office in 1985, Roger M. Mahony set about modernizing the operations of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. He brought in computers and put women in top jobs.
He then appointed an Irish-born academic to a brand-new cabinet position: Vicar for Clergy, a human resources director of sorts for priests, brothers and nuns. Msgr. Thomas J. Curry would shape the way the nation’s largest archdiocese responded to claims that its priests had molested and raped children.
In his five years in the role, Curry was a staunch defender of the church and its clergymen. And as revealed in secret church records made public last week, he chose again and again to conceal clerics’ crimes from police and put priests’ welfare ahead of helping victims.
On Thursday, as his former boss was publicly rebuked, the 70-year-old regional bishop in Santa Barbara stepped down, part of an unprecedented reaction by the Catholic Church to the clergy child abuse scandal. It was a stunning fall for a man who had acted as a right hand for one of the most powerful U.S. Catholic prelates.
Over the years, Curry has issued numerous public apologies in response to the sex abuse scandal. At the same time, he has been outspoken in his criticism of government authorities who, he says, were overzealous in their investigations.
“The targeting of the Church (particularly in California), the overreaching of district attorneys and prosecutors, and the lack of due process and fairness for the Church has been tyrannical,” he once wrote on a personal blog.
In another online missive, he criticized a San Diego federal judge who had upheld a California law allowing victims to sue for decades-old abuse: “Americans assume that the days of Henry VIII, when rulers declared themselves authorities in religious matters, are long gone in America. For Catholics, unfortunately, that is far from the reality.”
In an email to The Times on Saturday, Curry said he wrote the blog posts to make the point that the Catholic Church was being unfairly blamed for a “society-wide issue.”
“I do believe that it is a mistake for society to treat this as a ‘Catholic Church’ problem,” he said.
Memos and letters
Not long after his appointment as vicar in 1985, Curry was discussing ways to keep the misdeeds of priests out of the court system, the newly released records show. Curry wrote memos and letters stating that he believed the church was not legally responsible for the harm its priests caused.
In November 1989, Curry wrote to Mahony about where to assign Father Kevin Barmasse, who had been sent to Tucson years earlier after molesting a Lakewood boy. The priest wanted to return to Los Angeles. Curry wrote: “The young boy involved is now about eighteen, so Kevin should certainly not return for another two years by which time the period for filing law suits will have passed.”
In a letter that same month, he told Barmasse to stay in Arizona.
“While such suits are not effective against the Archdiocese, in that the Archdiocese was not aware of your behavior and did take action as soon as it became aware of it, they are extremely painful for all parties involved,” Curry wrote. “Our experience tells us that your presence in the area ... would greatly increase the possibility of a suit against you.”
He also dismissed the notion that the church bore responsibility for the acts of Msgr. Peter Garcia, a priest who targeted the children of undocumented immigrants.
In a 1990 letter, Curry wrote that he viewed a boy molested by Garcia as “the victim of a person who, as a result of his own illness, committed grave wrongs.”
“Although the person was a priest, he did not perform these wrongs as a representative of the Church or even with its knowledge,” he wrote.
Curry, as Mahony’s delegate in handling abuse claims, dealt directly with the problem priests. After he met and corresponded with them, his sympathies often appeared to lie with the clerics.
Of one priest, George Neville Rucker, accused in 1989 by a 31-year-old woman of decades-old abuse, he wrote: “It was of great concern to him that for something that was so casual to him at the time could be so devastating to her ... he stays awake at night because of this.”
“The trouble it caused him and his transfer was such a trauma for him that he has never been involved in anything since that time,” Curry recounted.
Curry also proposed to Mahony that another priest stay away from a therapist who “should have” contacted police but did not. And he raised the possibility of sending an abusive cleric to a psychiatrist who was also an attorney so their conversations would remain legally confidential.
Curry declined to respond to questions on the files, saying he has “not had the time or opportunity” to review them. He said he felt “profound regret, disappointment, sorrow and sympathy” for parishioners who may have felt betrayed by the revelations.
Curry emphasized that his actions related to priest abuse were at the behest of Mahony.
“I acted after consultation and consent of the Archbishop,” he wrote in the email sent by his attorney. Curry said if such allegations were to come to his attention today, he would “be sure to ascertain that the matter had been reported to the secular authorities.”
Church and state
Curry was ordained as a priest in Ireland in 1967. He earned a degree at University College Dublin in history and political science and soon moved to Southern California, where he worked as a parish priest in Woodland Hills and then as a high school teacher in Downey and Santa Fe Springs. He received his doctorate in American history at Claremont Graduate University.
Curry is a 1st Amendment scholar who has written and lectured extensively about the separation of church and state. He argues that since the 1940s, the government has meddled too much in church affairs.
When the church abuse scandal broke in 2002, more than a decade after his tenure as vicar ended, Curry was the Santa Barbara regional bishop. He repeatedly apologized in local newspapers, saying the church had not been equipped to deal with the problem.
That year, a group of Catholics started a chapter of the national church reform group Voice of the Faithful. Curry met with them. Marie Foley, 74, a former professor at Santa Barbara City College, said that Curry came across as a gentle scholar, an introverted intellectual who charmed people with his Irish brogue. He was far from imperious, she said.
“He expressed remorse at those meetings,” Foley said. “I thought it was heartfelt. I got a sense that they were very slow in understanding sexual abuse and understanding pedophilia.”
Behind closed doors, however, Curry struck a different tone.
In a 2009 civil deposition about his handling of Michael Baker, one of the archdiocese’s most notorious pedophile priests, Curry said that in the 1980s neither he nor Mahony notified parishes where Baker had previously served, nor did they try to locate victims. “I wasn’t trained in finding people,” he said.
The bishop said he understood child molestation was a crime in 1986, when Baker first told church officials he’d abused boys, but didn’t call the police because there was an understanding that Baker’s admission -- though not a sacramental confession -- was a “confidential matter.”
“If he had come in and told you he had murdered children, would you have called police?” an attorney asked.
“I don’t know what I would have done in that I never dealt with such a thing,” Curry replied.
Authorities believe that Baker molested as many as 23 children. He pleaded guilty in 2007 to sexually abusing two boys. Curry said that he was “disappointed” and “grieved” over the priest’s transgressions, but he added: “I did not think I made a mistake at the time.”
“Do you feel you bear partial responsibility for that by putting him back in ministry?” the attorney asked.
“No,” Curry said.
“So your conscience is clear on that?” the attorney asked.
The bishop replied: “Yes.”
In recent years, Curry had gained the respect of some Santa Barbara parishioners critical of the church’s handling of the priest scandal.
Kathleen Strittmatter, 70, and her husband were so taken by the affable bishop that every Christmas they sent him a few bottles of good red wine. He didn’t like Merlot, and shied away from Scotch, which gave him headaches, she said. The couple also gave Curry a series of jazz albums.
Strittmatter, who would sometimes run into Curry at the local Trader Joe’s, said he often spoke nostalgically of his native Ireland.
“I felt a real connection to the man,” she said. “He was very kind and very cordial.”
When an elderly friend of hers who volunteered at Curry’s residence started suffering from dementia, the bishop and Strittmatter worked together to help her.
Last week, she and others were dumbfounded by what the reams of church records and correspondences revealed about the bishop’s reaction to allegations of child abuse. They said they couldn’t help but think about the public apologies he made a decade ago.
The local chapter of Voice of the Faithful called for Curry’s resignation.
But Strittmatter said she felt she owed Curry her own personal email. After a lot of prayer, Strittmatter told the bishop she hoped he would resign, adding pessimistically: “This will never happen I know.”
She concluded the email: “I have spent the last week in devastation and sorrow, as I am sure have you. May God have mercy on us all.”
Becerra reported from Santa Barbara, and Powers and Kim from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Harriet Ryan, Jack Leonard and Alan Zarembo contributed to this report.