The California attorney general’s investigation into how the Los Angeles Archdiocese — and potentially other dioceses in California — handled abuse allegations over the years is a major step for prosecutors.
The priest scandal has resulted in record financial settlements for victims as well as criminal charges against individual priests. But this investigation looks at how the institution as a whole has handled the allegations of sexual abuse.
The L.A. Archdiocese was dogged for years by allegations of covering up the sexual misconduct of priests. The church is accused of transferring priests who molested children to other parishes rather than removing them from the priesthood and alerting authorities.
The church also fought for years to keep files about priest abuse secret.
Here is a look at the high stakes ahead from the pages of The Times:
Has there ever been this kind of an investigation into the Catholic Church in L.A.?
The closest thing to it occurred in 2009, when the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles began a grand jury investigation into a cardinal in the archdiocese.
The Times reported at the time that the goal was to determine whether then-Cardinal Roger Mahony, and possibly other church leaders, committed fraud by failing to adequately deal with priests accused of sexually abusing children, according to several sources who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the investigation.
Authorities were applying a legal theory in a novel way. One federal law enforcement source said prosecutors were seeking to use a federal statute that made it illegal to “scheme … to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.” In this case, the victims were the parishioners who relied on Mahony and other church leaders to keep their children safe from predatory priests, the source said.
No charges were ever filed.
Then in 2013, documents were released that showed Mahony and a top advisor plotted to conceal child molestation by priests from law enforcement.
What sparked this new investigation?
That is unclear; the attorney general has not commented on it.
But it appears to be connected to a series of shocking church abuse scandals revealed last year in other parts of the country.
Other state attorneys general have launched Catholic clergy abuse investigations in the wake of a series of new scandals in the last year, including a Pennsylvania report that revealed a decades-long cover-up of child sex abuse involving more than 1,000 victims and hundreds of clergy.
An Illinois attorney general’s report released in December found that the number of Catholic clergy accused of sexual abuse in that state was much higher than previously acknowledged. The report found 690 clergy accused, although church officials had publicly identified only 185 with credible allegations against them.
In November, California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra asked people who believe they had been sexually abused by clergy members in the state to come forward.
“In light of the news surrounding the sexual abuse of children by members of clergy or religious organizations across the country, the Department of Justice is gathering information from the public regarding complaints of this nature in California,” he said in a statement at the time.
Of the 54 names previously undisclosed by Los Angeles church leaders, the vast majority were clergy members accused of wrongdoing before 2008, the last time the archdiocese updated the list. At least 27 are dead.
The L.A. Archdiocese has already paid a record $740 million in various settlements to victims and had pledged to better protect its church members.
What is the California attorney general looking for?
In a letter dated Thursday, Becerra requested that Gomez, the current archbishop, preserve an array of documents related to clergy abuse allegations.
“The California Department of Justice is conducting a review of your archdiocese’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations involving children, including whether your archdiocese has adequately reported allegations of sexual misconduct, as required under California’s Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act,” the letter stated.
The letter said prosecutors are specifically examining whether the church followed mandatory reporting laws regarding sex abuse. It also noted it is looking at allegations of abuse by both clergy and non-clergy personnel.
The letter suggests prosecutors are looking for cases over a long period of time rather than at specific allegations of wrongdoing.
Is there a road map for such a case?
If there is, it might lie in a sweeping report released last year in Pennsylvania.
The report into Catholic priest abuse was the culmination of a two-year grand jury investigation launched by the state’s attorney general. It is thought to be the most extensive U.S. inquiry into how Catholic priests sexually abused children for at least half a century and were shielded by senior church officials trying to avoid public controversy.
Based on half a million pages of internal church documents, as well as the testimony of dozens of witnesses, the grand jury identified 301 “predator priests” who abused more than 1,000 children in six of Pennsylvania’s eight dioceses, with the “real number” of victims thought to be in the thousands.
The bulk of the abuse identified in the Pennsylvania report happened before the early 2000s, when inquiries into sexual abuse by Catholic priests launched a global reckoning outside and inside the church over its handling of problem clergy, actions that critics say had been marked by evasion and secrecy.
The grand jury report said the strategies used by the Catholic Church to respond to allegations of sexual abuse amounted to “a playbook for concealing the truth.”
The seven steps in the “playbook” were: 1) use euphemisms like “boundary issues” instead of “rape”; 2) use fellow clergy to conduct investigations; 3) send problem priests to church-run treatment centers; 4) decline to say why abusive priests were removed; 5) provide housing and living expenses for predator clergy; 6) transfer problem priests to new dioceses; and 7) avoid reporting the priests to the police.
Despite the number of cases of child abuse identified, the grand jury indicted only two priests — both on suspicion of sexually assaulting children — because the statute of limitations had passed on most of the rest.
Both cases involved allegations from the last decade. One of the priests was accused of ejaculating into the mouth of a 7-year-old. The other is alleged to have assaulted two boys “on a monthly basis” for years.