MORE

Behind the Robes

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.

Ziemann and Mahony met in the early 1960s, when Ziemann was attending Our Lady of the Angels Seminary in San Fernando and Mahony was at St. John’s. Mahony graduated from St. John’s in 1962. Ziemann later attended St. John’s and graduated in 1967. Mahony was the serious student. Ziemann was the worldly charmer following in his footsteps.

In 1987, Ziemann became Mahony’s auxiliary bishop. He was a rising star. In 1992, however, Ziemann left Los Angeles to become the bishop of the Diocese of Santa Rosa. There, he fell into trouble, when a Costa Rican priest sued him for blackmail, charging that Ziemann forced the priest to be his sex partner.

The diocese settled out of court for $535,000, in 1999, and Ziemann resigned in disgrace. He left the diocese $16 million in debt. Ziemann has been charged in civil court with molesting minors from 1967 to 1992. The Vatican has removed his faculties as a bishop and he currently resides at Holy Trinity Monastery in St. David, Arizona, near Tucson.

Observers of the church scandal find it impossible to believe that Mahony was unaware of the danger Ziemann (and Baker) posed to minors. What is more disturbing, they say, is the role of the St. John’s old boy club.

Technically, the Vatican approves all transfers related to bishops. But Ziemann’s placement in Santa Rosa required the assent of Archbishop William Levada of the Archdiocese of San Francisco (St. John’s Class of 1958). And, Ziemann’s later residence within the Diocese of Tucson has required the assent of Bishop Manuel Moreno (St. John’s Class of 1961). Both are close friends of Mahony’s. Sources familiar with St. John’s — a seminary known for sexual tolerance — contend that Levada, Mahony and Moreno hold the key to the depths of the priest scandal in Los Angeles.

Authorities are investigating other leads, which they believe flow along the Mahony-Moreno axis between Los Angeles and Tucson. Last Friday, however, Moreno resigned as bishop of Tucson, citing health reasons. He leaves a diocese racked with scandal.

Prosecutors in Ventura and Los Angeles counties also are targeting Mahony’s top administrators, known as vicars of clergy. Several have appeared before the grand jury in Ventura. They are:

ŽBishop Thomas Curry, vicar of clergy, 1986-90. Curry was aware of charges that a priest molested altar boys in two parishes but allowed him to flee to Mexico, in 1988. The priest, the Rev. Nicolas Aguilar Rivera, was charged with lewd acts on a child and is still at large.

Curry also wrote letters in 1987 and 1988 to an exiled priest urging him to stay away from Los Angeles. The priest was accused of molesting a teenage girl along with six other priests and impregnating her, and had fled to the Philippines. “My client was acting in the best interests of the priest, the church and all those concerned,” said Brian Hennigan, a former ä federal prosecutor with Irell & Manella who represents Curry.

Curry is the bishop of the Diocese of Santa Barbara, appointed by Mahony in 1994.

ŽMsgr. Timothy Dyer, vicar of clergy, 1991-95. Dyer and Michael Baker were classmates at St. John’s. After Baker had admitted to molesting children, in 1986, Dyer accompanied him on trips in the 1990s to the Tucson diocese, where Baker allegedly molested the two boys he settled out of court with in 2000. “There was no suggestion of impropriety,” Michael Hennigan, lawyer for the Los Angeles archdiocese said. “No one knew Baker had misbehaved during that time.”

ŽMsgr. Richard Loomis, vicar of clergy, 1996-2000. E-mails leaked to KFI radio in April 2002 reportedly came from Loomis’ computer. He resigned as secretariat director in October to pursue parish work. “Msgr. Loomis is not the focus of any investigation,” said his attorney, James Farley of Ventura. “He was only [before the grand jury] to explain the process of handling priest complaints.”Msgr. Craig Cox, vicar of clergy, 2000-2002.

 

Many are skeptical that the criminal case will stick to Mahony or his top people, however. Prosecutors have been unable to charge higher-ups in the church despite clear showings of a cover-up in Boston and Rockville Center, New York, due to expired statutes of limitation. And, a key California law that extends the statute of limitations for charging priests with crimes against children is up for review before the U.S. Supreme Court. If the law is stricken, prosecutors would lose one of their most potent weapons in building up to a larger case against Mahony.

Don Steier, who represents Baker, Ziemann and several other key defendants in the criminal probe, also said Mahony has complied with child abuse reporting laws enacted in 1997. Steier has represented the archdiocese’s priests for 20 years. “Did Mahony fail to turn over priests to the authorities?” Steier said. “Yes. But not after 1997.” (Prosecutors believe the archdiocese steers its most vulnerable priests toward Steier to keep them within the fold. Steier denies he is a key player.)

Criminal law experts doubt that the church hierarchy could be charged with serious crimes. “Church officials would have had to either molest children or intend that someone else would,” explained former prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi. “Although Mahony may have looked the other way, I find it inconceivable that he and his administrators actually intended for priests to molest children.”


Sponsor Content