Does the Mahony probe have a prayer?

After news broke last week that a federal grand jury is investigating Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, some legal experts questioned the U.S. attorney’s strategy. The move was unlikely to result in a prosecution, they said, and was a little like throwing a Hail Mary pass at the end of a football game.

Maybe so, but as most sports fans -- and even the cardinal -- would acknowledge, sometimes Hail Marys work.

On one level, it doesn’t matter if the federal prosecutor’s grand jury probe leads to a filing. Because only 2% of the 4,392 U.S. priests and deacons accused of molestation from 1950 through 2002 served time in prison, victims of clergy sexual abuse are used to the criminal justice system failing them. It’s enough for many victims that someone in authority is trying to hold a prominent Catholic leader responsible for his role in enabling pedophile priests.

In eight years as a religion reporter, I interviewed many victims of clergy abuse. And there is an almost universal sense among them that Mahony has never owned up to his role in the sex scandal. Instead, the cardinal has promoted himself -- with the help of a high-priced public relations firm -- as a leading reformer on the way the church handles clergy sexual abuse.

Just last week, for example, the Los Angeles Archdiocese put out a statement applauding Mahony’s role as an agent of change: “Under Cardinal Roger Mahony, the Archdiocese has put in place comprehensive child protection and abuse reporting procedures, and we say again: There is no priest currently in ministry in the Archdiocese who has been found to have abused a minor.”

It isn’t just victims who feel Mahony and other bishops haven’t taken enough responsibility. In 2003, former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating -- a committed Catholic who chaired a U.S. bishops’ National Review Board inquiry -- compared Mahony and his fellow bishops to La Costa Nostra for the way they obstructed meaningful investigation into the sex scandal. In the board’s later report, Mahony was singled out for criticism for having refused to turn over documents in a previous grand jury probe.

In the seven years since the scandal first broke, Mahony and his brother bishops have relied on news fatigue, parishioner apathy and propaganda to escape personal responsibility for their starring roles in putting children in the paths of known predators.

This let’s-move-on attitude might have gained traction were it not for U.S. Atty. Thomas P. O’Brien. The grand jury probe by O’Brien’s office is likely to reexamine whether Mahony should be held accountable for leaving a large crew of predators (including two convicted child molesters) serving in the ministry until 2002, when a legal settlement in a clergy sexual abuse case mandated their removal.

With the grand jury’s inquiry comes the possibility that Mahony will finally be held responsible for molestations (and there were many) by priests the cardinal had reason to suspect were pedophiles, such as Michael Baker. Baker confessed to Mahony in 1986 that he had molested two boys, but rather than alerting the police, Mahony sent Baker to New Mexico for treatment. He then took the priest back into a ministry in the archdiocese, where he served for an additional 14 years and molested other children.

To date, Mahony has skirted personal responsibility for Baker and other cases that happened on his watch. He has been quick to point out that most of the molestations in the archdiocese happened before he became archbishop in 1985. And he says he sought to remove abusive priests from the ministry. What he doesn’t point out is that he did not attempt to fully purge the archdiocese of molesters until the 2002 court settlement required him to do so. He also has vociferously defended the church’s attempts to withhold personnel records of priests accused of molestation.

In 2004, Mahony told The Times that the sexual abuse scandal was “not the cross I would have chosen” but that he had accepted it. “Personally for me, it’s been a time of great spiritual renewal,” he said.

But Mahony’s “great spiritual renewal” didn’t stop him from waging a brutal legal battle against 508 victims of clergy sexual abuse. It took four bruising years -- and countless attempts by the church to get the lawsuits dropped and evidence suppressed -- before Mahony agreed to a settlement in 2007.

In his many public apologies to the victims, he’s never acknowledged that his failure to act quickly and decisively resulted in unspeakable harm to Catholic children.

The survivors of clergy sexual abuse in Los Angeles don’t believe that kind of honest apology will ever come from Mahony. And that’s why such a buzz went through the community when news broke of the federal grand jury probe. Maybe, just maybe, they now allow themselves to think, there will finally be justice.

And if not, as one survivor told me last week, “dashed hope is better than no hope at all.”

William Lobdell, a former religion reporter for The Times, wrote a memoir that will be out this month: “Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America -- and Found Unexpected Peace.”