By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Tom Wilmshurst
As the most insidious church scandal in U.S. history unfolds, pedophilic priests can expect to receive hard justice. But what about the man in the red hat?
Cardinal Roger Mahony has emerged as a self-styled reformer, yet more than 300 alleged victims claim he has concealed sex abusers. Authorities are investigating 50 clerics, including a disgraced bishop-in-exile and former Mahony protégé. A Ventura County grand jury has hauled in four of Mahony’s top advisers for questioning.
First it was Boston. Now Los Angeles is seen as the next city to erupt in church upheaval. But bringing a criminal case against Mahony might be as hard as turning water into wine. Prosecutors must either pry open church files or crack the code of silence in the Catholic hierarchy. And, police are still rounding up errant priests; some have fled the country.
Mahony’s lawyer, J. Michael Hennigan calls the notion of criminal charges against church officials for harboring child molesters “preposterous.” Yet he periodically asks prosecutors if Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley is coming after the cardinal. Cooley has assigned the case to Deputy District Attorney William Hodgman, a veteran of high-profile investigations, including the Keating Five scandal, the O.J. Simpson case and Rampart.
“There is an inevitability to this investigation,” Hodgman said recently. “It’s like Watergate unfolding. We’ll work from the ground up. We will get documents and we will put priests in jail.”
But Mahony faces threats outside the D.A.’s Office as well. Civil proceedings before a Los Angeles Superior Court judge could dislodge similar smoking gun documents that led to Boston-based Cardinal Bernard Law’s resignation. Such disclosures could devastate Mahony’s moral standing as the most powerful prelate in the United States.
Mahony’s lawyers are negotiating hundreds of civil sex abuse claims in a feverish attempt to avoid court orders to release documents. Civil attorneys and prosecutors are convinced the church’s primary focus is to protect Mahony from being called before a grand jury, as Law was recently.
“Everything is about saving Mahony,” said a plaintiffs’ attorney.
Cooley, coming up empty in the Rampart scandal and the Belmont High School fiasco, is cautious not to promise charges against Mahony. “We must not convert a huge, moral and institutional failing into something that is not a viable criminal theory,” he said.
Prosecutors are examining Mahony and his troubled friends and colleagues, many of whom graduated from his alma mater, St. John’s Seminary College in Camarillo.
Mahony’s history in addressing sexual abuse appears to date back 20 years. In the early 1980s, when he was bishop of the Diocese of Stockton, Mahony employed a priest named Oliver O’Grady, a confessed molester. When two brothers sued the diocese, Mahony testified he never knew about O’Grady. Jury members thought Mahony lied. In 1998, they awarded the brothers $30 million (which was later reduced to $7.5 million).
That was the last time Mahony testified in court about clergy sexual abuse. No cleric close to him has either. Two men in particular stand out.
In 2000, two brothers from Tucson, Arizona, charged that the Rev. Michael Baker molested them in Arizona, Mexico, Palm Springs and Los Angeles, from 1984 to 1999. Tucson lawyer Lynne Cadigan demanded that Baker respond to the charges, which he did, by calling her and offering $1 million, Cadigan said. Baker had confessed to Mahony to sexually abusing minors back in 1986. “Just don’t tell Roger [Mahony],” Baker said, according to Cadigan. “I’m supposed to be staying out of trouble but I’m still doing things I shouldn’t do. Roger will be mad if he finds out.”
Cadigan advised Baker to get a lawyer. Before long, she was on a plane to Los Angeles, where she met with Baker’s lawyer. Soon after, Baker and the archdiocese paid the brothers $1.3 million. The archdiocese paid almost half. Cadigan didn’t have to lift a finger.
“There is nothing good about the Baker case,” Hennigan, the archdiocese’s lawyer said. Baker (St. John’s Class of 1974) resigned in 2000. He was arrested last year and has been charged with lewd acts on a child under 14. Currently out on bail, he is expected to appear in court on April 14. He’s admitted to molesting children, and appears to have done so after confessing to the cardinal. Baker also claims to have a close relationship with Mahony, which could make him a devastating state’s witness, prosecutors believe. Mahony has publicly repudiated Baker.
Mahony and another close colleague similarly dodged the spotlight. In 2001, Mahony was scheduled to give a deposition in a sex abuse case against Msgr. Michael Harris, but the archdiocese joined the Diocese of Orange in a $5.2 million settlement. Opinions differ about why the archdiocese settled. Some believe it was the fear of Mahony testifying again. Others believe it was the fear of an old crony of Mahony’s testifying — Bishop G. Patrick Ziemann, who is under investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department. Ziemann had given one deposition in the Harris case and was scheduled to give a second one when the case settled in 2001.