Will new criminal investigation expose church leaders in sex abuse scandal?

California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra’s office has launched an investigation into how the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles handled sex abuse allegations.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

A new investigation into how the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and California’s 11 other Roman Catholic dioceses handled sex abuse cases could uncover more disturbing details of misconduct and institutional failures. But it’s an open question whether it would lead to more criminal charges.

News of the statewide investigation brought new hope for some victims of abuse, along with caution.

The California attorney general’s office this week asked church officials at each of the dioceses to preserve an array of documents related to clergy abuse allegations. Among other things, prosecutors are examining whether church officials adequately reported allegations of sexual misconduct, as required under California’s Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act,

Former L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who as the county’s top prosecutor charged two dozen priests and used a grand jury to extract records from the archdiocese, said the probe may generate more information, but criminal charges are much harder to lodge against the church hierarchy.


Cooley said that because the Los Angeles Archdiocese delayed and blocked disclosure, the efforts to hold church officials accountable have been stymied.

“Conspiracy charges are based on the last overt act. The statute for conspiracy is based on the underlying crime,” Cooley said. “Here that could be obstruction of justice, and that is just a few years.”

The L.A. Archdiocese has paid a record $740 million in various settlements to victims and pledged to better protect its members. Archbishop Jose H. Gomez succeeded longtime Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, who faced strong criticism for his handling of the scandal that undercut his moral authority as one of America’s most important Catholic leaders. In the wake of the settlement, the church imposed a series of reforms.

For nearly two decades, the archdiocese has been roiled by allegations that church leaders mishandled abuse cases, sometimes moving clergy suspected of wrongdoing to other parishes rather than punishing them and informing law enforcement. Individual priests have been criminally prosecuted, but investigations of church leaders ended without charges.


Attorney Anthony De Marco, who helped secure the $740 million in settlements, said it’s encouraging that the attorney general is investigating but too soon to tell what will come of it.

“I am a little more measured, as time and time again law enforcement agencies have talked of actions and nothing has come of it in terms of the church’s higher-up figures and their behavior,” he said.

“The people I represent and survivors in general are just thrilled,” added another victims’ attorney, Joseph George of Sacramento. “I love the idea that law enforcement would come in with warrants and subpoena power and really get things done.”

Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra in a letter to the dioceses requested records that include all allegations of sexual misconduct with minors received from 1996 to the present, regardless of when the misconduct took place, along with any actions taken against any individual who was accused or who failed to report allegations to law enforcement.

In a statement, a spokeswoman said the Los Angeles Archdiocese had not yet received the letter but planned to respond “cooperatively as we have with the past three Grand Jury investigations of the archdiocese.”

“The Archdiocese of Los Angeles is committed to transparency and has established reporting and prevention policies and programs to protect minors and support victim-survivors in our parishes, schools and ministries,” the statement said. “The Archdiocese was one of the first dioceses in the nation to publish a comprehensive report in 2004 listing accused clergy both living and deceased, and released clergy files as part of a 2007 global settlement.”

Get our Essential California newsletter