Mahony Resisted Abuse Inquiry, Panelist Says

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, who has publicly called on the Roman Catholic Church to be open in its response to the sexual abuse scandal, tried this spring to derail an effort by church officials to figure out exactly how many priests may have been implicated in abuse, according to members of the church’s watchdog panel.

Mahony’s effort was one example of resistance by some bishops nationwide that the head of the panel, former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, called “stunning, startling.”

In an interview, Keating, who was named last year by the U.S. bishops to head their National Review Board, used unusually vivid language to criticize the resistance he has seen across the country. Some members of the church hierarchy -- he did not name them -- had behaved “like La Cosa Nostra,” he said.


“I have seen an underside that I never knew existed. I have not had my faith questioned, but I certainly have concluded that a number of serious officials in my faith have very clay feet. That is disappointing and educational, but it’s a fact,” Keating said.

“To act like La Cosa Nostra and hide and suppress, I think, is very unhealthy,” he said. “Eventually it will all come out.”

Keating added that “I think there are a number of bishops -- and I put Cardinal Mahony in that category -- who listen too much to his lawyer and not enough to his heart.”

“I appreciate he’s watching out for the best interests of his diocese,” the board chairman said. “But we have a mandate for transparency, full disclosure and openness. That’s what we’re carrying out.”

Responding to those comments, Mahony spokesman Tod Tamberg called Keating “a sincere and well-meaning person.”

“I would attribute his remarks, perhaps, to extra zeal. He’s not an authority on California law or the pastoral concerns of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. We’ll just leave it at that,” Tamberg said.


He added that the matter that appeared to have sparked Keating’s criticism had been resolved earlier this week. That dispute involved the review board’s attempt to survey all 195 American dioceses on the number of priests accused of sexual abuse.

The survey is a central part of the panel’s effort to determine the extent of the sexual abuse crisis.

Media organizations have estimated that 432 of 46,000 U.S. priests resigned, retired or were otherwise removed from ministry in 2002 under suspicion of sexual abuse. No official count, however, has been made of the total number of accused priests.

Last year, when the bishops adopted their new guidelines for prevention of sexual abuse, known as the Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth, they created the review board and directed it to conduct the survey of all dioceses.

As of Wednesday, 134 dioceses had responded, at least in part, said Leon A. Panetta, White House chief of staff under President Clinton and a member of the National Review Board. Among the exceptions to such cooperation have been the dioceses of California, board members said.

In April, Mahony wrote to all U.S. cardinals and major archbishops calling for the review board to terminate its contract with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, which the panel had hired to conduct the study.

According to a recipient of the letters, Mahony said he was concerned that information provided for the survey would be subject to discovery motions by prosecutors and civil attorneys representing sexual abuse victims.

The Los Angeles archbishop also said researchers at the college might leak the information, creating a “media frenzy,” and then deny having done so.

In May, California’s bishops followed Mahony’s lead and passed a resolution -- previously unpublicized -- declaring that they would not participate in the survey.

The survey failed to take into account California’s privacy laws and the decision by the state Legislature to allow sexual abuse victims more time to sue the church, the California bishops said.

Tamberg said Wednesday that those concerns had been resolved in a conference call among attorneys Tuesday that would lead to changes in the survey. The California bishops now “will participate fully in this survey in good faith,” he added.

“The final goal here is having an understanding of how all this came about to help us make sure that it is not ever replicated again,” he said, referring to the numerous incidents of sexual abuse.

But a member of the review board, New York attorney Robert Bennett, said Wednesday that the California bishops’ concerns about the survey had been “without merit.”

Any changes made would have to be minor, he said, adding that the review board had made clear to Mahony and others that there would be no major alterations in the survey questionnaire.

Bennett said he was pleased that the California bishops “are now willing to comply.”

“The resistance experienced to date from California in particular ... is totally inconsistent with the charter and does not help us achieve our goal of protecting children,” he said. “We do understand that the dioceses have raised, through their lawyers, various privacy and confidentiality issues. These issues must take second seat to the protection of young children.”

Confidentiality has also been at the center of the disputes between the Los Angeles Archdiocese and prosecutors over personnel documents.

Mahony’s attorneys have argued that some of the personnel files should not be given to prosecutors because turning them over would violate religious freedom and the confidentiality between bishop and priest.

Keating, a former federal prosecutor and defense attorney, said he had never heard of such a privilege. He said dioceses should answer legitimate inquiries from district attorneys.

The L.A. Archdiocese has turned over all the documents in question to a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, who will rule later this year on the validity of the church’s claim that some of the documents are shielded by a privilege.