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Church in Crisis

Cardinal admits silence about priest abuser

Los Angeles

The clergy sex abuse headlines have moved West with a vengeance. Now it’s Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony’s turn to face the public ire. Mahony, previously heralded as “media savvy,” admitted May 14 to archdiocesan priests that he had kept quiet about an abusive priest for 16 years.

The cardinal’s admission came just before the Los Angeles Times published an investigation into the cover-up of Mahony’s transfers of known sex abuser Fr. Michael Stephen Baker. The paper said the results of the investigation will be published soon.

According to a story in the May 16 Los Angeles Times, Baker told Mahony in 1986 he had been abusing boys, but the cardinal continued to transfer Baker to other parishes where the abuse continued. In 2000, Baker was allowed to “quietly retire” from the archdiocese, after Mahony had already approved a $1.3 million settlement to two men who claimed Baker had abused them.

In that complaint, said the Times, Lynne M. Cadigan, the lawyer representing the men, stated, “No one at the archdiocese of Los Angeles, including Cardinal Mahony, reported Baker’s sexual abuse of children to the authorities, to the parents of the abused children, or to any other foreseeable victims. Nor did they attempt to find out all the children he had molested.”

This latest case is one of two that could publicly squeeze Mahony into a situation similar to the one plaguing Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law.

The other is the December 2001 settlement of $5.2 million to Ryan DiMaria in Orange, a diocese within Mahony’s purview as archbishop.

The California public knows that it was DiMaria who forced the Los Angeles archdiocese to adopt its “zero tolerance” policy toward sexually abusive priests as part of a settlement the month before Boston’s headlines broke.

Law school graduate DiMaria fought a four-year legal battle with the archdiocese over the abuse he suffered as a teenager from his Catholic high school principal, Msgr. Michael Harris. DiMaria fought his case alone, though there were other, separate charges against Harris.

DiMaria, who is in his late 20s, through his lawyer insisted that the archdiocese establish a “one-strike” zero tolerance approach to abuse, including an 800 number for victims and their families. Once those policies were in place, DiMaria accepted what is considered the largest payout in a sex abuse case.

Since December, Mahony has been able to use the tough policy as an indication of his seriousness in dealing with the problem and its fallout. There have been letters to parishioners, apologies, promises and public appearances to smooth a frazzled and bewildered Catholic flock and assuage public disgust.

Even so, only under constant pressure from the Los Angeles Times since then has Mahony given details, supplying a little information at a time, about names provided to the police of priests who were known abusers. And at the time of the April trip by U.S. cardinals to Rome, Mahony had achieved some visibility.

Reporter Beth Shuster in the Times wrote April 28, “The trip to Vatican City gave Mahony the opportunity to present himself as a reformer, and even his critics were impressed, if not convinced.”

Some of the unconvinced include Times staffers, who have been digging into the now-breaking Baker case. Baker is accused, said the Times, of molesting at least nine youths since 1976. The cardinal, in his preemptive letter to priests warned of the forthcoming media story.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is ajones96@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, May 24, 2002