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Cardinal Untruths 

Mahony’s testimony in sex scandal clashes with earlier statements and reality

Thursday, Dec 16 2004
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Confidential documents and sworn statements by Cardinal Roger Mahony were released last week, ending two years of legal maneuvers to shield "his eminence" from examination in the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal. The cardinal’s testimony, memos and letters offer a rare glimpse into Mahony’s formative years as a priest and young bishop in Fresno and Stockton from 1962 to 1985, and reflect on his moral standing as shepherd of 5 million Catholics in Los Angeles and ranking prelate in the United States.

Mahony emerges as a man of contradictions and memory problems. A man who claims never to have known a priest to have sex before 1968, who struggles to remember steps he took — or did not take — to address a pedophilia crisis of epic proportions. A man whose fitness to lead must now be examined in light of whether he is telling the truth or not.

Compelled by the court after months of resistance, Mahony was deposed recently at his lawyer’s office in downtown Los Angeles. Five lawyers representing hundreds of sex-abuse victims questioned Mahony for six hours about how he responded to accusations that priests in his charge had molested children. His stubborn refusal to answer all questions with candor was a virtual dare to his adversaries to dig deeper for the truth.

Victims who witnessed the deposition struggled to contain their emotions as Mahony’s attorneys coached the cardinal and cajoled victims’ lawyers, who in their blunt questioning conveyed a sense of moral outrage on behalf of people whose lives were ruined by a priest who might have been stopped had the cardinal done more. At stake was not only the tenuous negotiations of hundreds of lawsuits alleging sexual abuse, or the pending prosecution of a few rogue priests, or even the possibility of broader conspiracy charges against Mahony and his colleagues, but the credibility of the last remaining symbol of influence, power and authority in the U.S. Catholic Church.

The result is 265 pages of testimony that shows Mahony distancing himself from his own career. "As I get older, more distant things I can’t remember," he says. Like a crooked screw, his story just doesn’t fit, no matter how hard he twists.

For instance, despite new, damaging evidence, Mahony insists he did not lie when he testified in a civil trial in 1998 that he dealt with just one priest accused of molestation while he was the bishop of Stockton from 1980 to 1985. He says he simply forgot about memos in his own hand in 1981 and 1984 that show him lowering the boom on two previously undisclosed priests accused of molestation. Meanwhile, in 1984, he transferred a pedophile priest to a new parish where he molested again. Church personnel documents are cryptic but suggest a broader problem than the one Mahony denies remembering.

Such evidence undermines Mahony’s credibility as a witness and an administrator. After his sworn testimony, lawyers accused him of perjury, and sent a transcript to prosecutors in Northern California for investigation. Fallout could reach Los Angeles, where his decisions to leave priests in ministry after he knew they had molested children are being investigated. A criminal trial of one, Michael Wempe, begins in January, and prosecutors know of key witnesses who could revive charges against another, Michael Baker.

"No amount of public relations can turn this into a poor memory," says A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist, author and former priest. "For a man of his background and administrative capability to make such a claim is disgusting. We’re scratching at the surface of his character here. And you are seeing the philosophy of the Catholic hierarchy, which is, ‘I only lie when I have to.’"

Mahony’s credibility will be an issue in 544 lawsuits headed for settlement in Los Angeles. Lawyers for abuse victims have shown they will relinquish the fight for accountability if the price is right. They recently settled 87 lawsuits with the Diocese of Orange for $100 million, after the diocese promised not to conceal documents that likely will emerge only after lawsuits are dismissed. While attorneys contend a large enough settlement could cost Mahony his job, Sipe believes the truth could be more effective. "If the real story gets told, lay people will realize that Los Angeles is more corrupt than Boston," he says.

Some of the discrepancies may appear small. For example, the Catholic Church for decades has called upon a variety of institutes to evaluate and treat priests with sexual disorders. Mahony, in his deposition, said he had no knowledge of them until 1985. Likewise, he seemingly was rising through the ranks of some other Catholic Church when the Vatican was disseminating procedures for dealing with priests accused of solicitation and pedophilia in the 1960s. Mahony was ordained in 1962, and was a licensed social worker in Fresno from 1964 to 1970. He served there as a chancellor and a vicar between 1975 and 1980. Yet he barely acknowledges being aware that the church was rife with molestation. He even denies knowledge of priests breaking their vow of celibacy until after the Second Vatican Counsel, in 1968. "I wouldn’t have any way of knowing," he said.

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