L.A. Church Officials Tried to Cover Up Priest Abuse

L.A. Church Officials Tried to Cover Up Priest Abuse
Cardinal Roger Mahony (digitalshay/ Creative Commons 2.0)

Confidential letters between Los Angeles Catholic church officials that had been withheld for decades—despite long efforts by victims to obtain them and stonewalling by the Church—were released Monday after becoming part of a civil court case against a priest accused of molesting 26 Los Angeles children in the 1980s.

The notes from then-Archbishop Roger M. Mahony and Monsignor Thomas J. Curry, published by the Los Angeles Times, have provided even more insight as to how sexual-abuse accusations against priests have been covered up for years. The notes detail plans by the two men to keep police from discovering that children were being molested in Los Angeles parishes, with Curry suggesting the predator priests not see therapists who could then alert authorities; instead, he wanted to give priests out-of-state assignments to avoid criminal charges. Curry was the chief advisor to the Archbishop on sex-abuse cases at the time.

One priest discussed in the released files was Msgr. Peter Garcia, who tended to abuse undocumented children because he could keep them quiet by threatening to have them deported. He went to a treatment center for pedophile clergy in New Mexico, but left the priesthood in 1989 after returning to Los Angeles and refusing to take medication to contain his sexual urges toward children. Never prosecuted, he died in 2009.

Mahony’s own notes indicate that, while he was disturbed by the abuse and sent priests to treatment centers, he did little to investigate the priests or discover if there were additional victims.

J. Michael Hennigan, an attorney for the Archdiocese, told the Times that the Church’s policy in the 1980s was to let the victim’s families decide if they wanted to report the abuse to the police—rather than have the Church report it as a crime—and that the church is proud of the progress they’ve made since then in taking the abuse more seriously.

Because of a 2007 civil settlement involving more than 500 victims, files concerning at least 75 more accused abusers will become public in upcoming weeks, and more revelations of complicity by the L.A. Catholic hierarchy are expected.

“For years we have been told we were not telling the truth,” said Joelle Casteix, the Western regional director of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests):

“We were told we’re trying to shame the church. We were told we were trying to sully our faith. But instead, what these documents show is that the children were telling the truth all along and that the children needed to be believed and it was men like Cardinal Mahony who were intentionally hurting children and hurting communities.”

Abuse and cover-ups has been an unfortunate pattern for the Catholic Church, including accusations of moving around priests who have abused minors instead of immediately defrocking them. In comparison, Sister Margaret McBride at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Arizona was excommunicated in 2009 after being on an ethics committee that voted to break hospital policy in order to give a woman suffering from severe pulmonary hypertension a life-saving abortion. The hospital cut ties with the church the next year. According to hospital president Linda Hunt, “Morally, ethically, and legally, we simply cannot stand by and let someone die whose life we might be able to save.” (As of Dec. 2011 Sister Margaret McBride is no longer excommunicated and is in good standing with the Sisters of Mercy.)

The U.S. priest abuse scandal has now been going on for 20 years, and in more recent years revelations of abuse have been made in Europe as well. In May 2009 a report came out from Ireland showing cases of emotional, physical and sexual abuse of thousands of children over a 70-year period. It included testimonies from more than 2,000 people who attended some 200 Catholic schools. Belgium, Norway and Austria all experienced similar scandalous revelations in 2010. After such revelations broke in Germany in 2011, tens of thousands left the German Catholic Church.

It’s not unusual that alleged priest abusers never get prosecuted—nor do the higher-ups that condoned the abuse. According to chief internal prosecutor at the Vatican office Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna, only 20 percent of the 3,000 accused priests who were reported to the church’s doctrinal office between 2001 and 2010 were given full trials. Ten percent left voluntarily and another ten percent were stripped of priestly privileges immediately. The remaining 60 percent faced “administrative and disciplinary provisions,” such as not being able to celebrate Mass.

Survivors of priest abuse are calling for criminal charges to be filed against Mahony and Curry, but since the evidence is from the 1980s, it has passed the statute of limitations.