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Cardinal Sins

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If she had never met the Rev. George Neville Rucker — had her mother never welcomed the priest into the family’s home — Jackie Dennis might still be singing in the choir at St. Agatha’s parish. Instead, on the rare Sunday she attends Mass, she sits alone in the balcony, estranged from her former classmates and friends, revisiting moments she wishes she could forget.

As she prays and sings along with the choir one Sunday last November, the 42-year-old Dennis recalls being in the fifth grade, intrigued by the Communion. She sees herself carrying the Eucharist for Rucker, the priest she once adored. After all these years, Dennis still remembers being the luckiest girl in her class, lucky to have the body and blood of Christ entrusted to her by someone so close to God. “I was the first girl in this choir,” Dennis whispers, as the choir sings “This Little Light.”

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When the visions come, however, they are unsparing in detail, she says after Mass, as she waits in front of St. Agatha’s for her husband to pick her up. Dennis sees herself naked behind the altar at St. Agatha’s. She remembers Rucker’s fingers inside her while looking up at the church ceiling and hearing a voice telling her to be a good girl. She envisions not just Rucker but vicars and bishops as serpents or beasts with horns. “They stole my education, my youth,” Dennis says of the men who allowed Rucker to remain a priest.

Dennis’ focus on the Catholic hierarchy is justified. Last week, when Cardinal Roger Mahony turned to the Los Angeles Times — and the Times only — to release the names of 244 priests accused of molestation since 1931, along with a self-serving mea culpa, Dennis went looking for him in anger. “That report didn’t mean shit to me,” she says. “There’s no accountability in it, just a bunch of PR bullshit.” Dennis has spoken to Mahony before. He knows who she is, and he knows what Rucker did to her. Which might explain the kid-glove treatment Dennis gets from Mahony spokesman Tod Tamberg, who frequently e-mails Dennis to engage her in friendly dialogue, despite her charges that Mahony has harbored pedophiles.

Mahony is a professional at this kind of manipulation. It’s called damage control. And whether he is courting victims in hopes that they will take his money and quietly go away, calling judges for legal advice about the jam he’s in, or inducing the Times into becoming his mouthpiece, he has been effective in containing a full-blown scandal.

But Mahony’s abuse of power has had an even more insidious effect. The Judicial Council of California and a number of local judges, deferring to his wish for secrecy, have ordered hundreds of claims of sex abuse into private negotiations, sealed off critical rulings about whether church documents should be confidential and slapped gag orders on victims and their attorneys. Influential trial lawyers who once swore to expose Mahony as a criminal defend the secretive process, and have stated their willingness to spare him. Los Angeles, where many powerful lawyers and judges belong to a political arm of the Catholic Church called the St. Thomas More Society, has become a beehive of intrigue at the expense of the collective psyche of already damaged victims of child rape. Money, power and the internal politics of the trial lawyers have compromised the search for accountability.

Despite Mahony’s machinations and bland apologies, and the resignations of numerous bishops across the country, including two close colleagues in Arizona, only he and his lawyers know what discipline, if any, church officials meted out to Rucker, who was allowed to remain a priest after allegedly molesting dozens of girls from the late 1940s to the 1980s. (Even after Rucker was forced to retire as a priest in 1987, he remained a chaplain until 2002, when the U.S. Coast Guard nabbed him fleeing on a cruise ship to Russia to escape criminal charges. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June led to the dismissal of 29 counts of child molestation against him.)

Until the public sees more than posturing and calculated acts of public contrition from Mahony, Dennis and her fellow survivors can only imagine the secrets he is spending millions of dollars in legal fees to protect. For more than a year they have been stymied. This is due in part to the genius of Mahony’s strategy. According to his lawyers, Mahony has a three-point plan for doing away with close to 500 claims of priest sexual abuse:

 

First, he plans to pay off any victim who filed a sex-abuse lawsuit before December 31 — preferably with insurance money — whether or not the person’s claim is defensible in court. Second, he intends to “make a public disclosure” regarding the extent that clergy abuse has plagued the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which explains last week’s release of a report in advance of a national study by an independent criminal-justice institute. And third, he intends to privately review videotaped testimony from hundreds of victims so he can somehow feel their pain.

Mahony’s strategy has been executed masterfully by J. Michael Hennigan of the law firm Hennigan, Bennett & Dorman. His plan has exploited weakness in his opponents, the media and the court. His preference to negotiate with victims behind closed doors has tested their emotional vulnerability and need for closure, while at times pitting them against their own lawyers, who can barely afford to litigate all the cases they have. Hennigan has honed in on a central problem with the state’s trial courts, which at best are underfunded and fearing a logjam of controversial sex-abuse claims, and at worst bending to Mahony’s influence as the most powerful prelate in the United States.

Media disclosures, orchestrated at times with the help of public relations gurus Sitrick and Company, have driven a wedge between key reporters at the Times, while betraying a gutless editorial policy of walking on eggshells around the cardinal. (See related story.) And his attempts to reach out to victims and the public have played on the sympathies of a passive, largely ethnic laity in Los Angeles, which has never openly questioned the integrity of Catholic leadership.

Concerns of institutional deference to Mahony should come as no surprise, but perhaps the most troubling is the judiciary. Though Dennis and fellow survivors have complained for months that they have been deprived access to the courts by the trial lawyers they turned to for help, more troubling are the judges who have protected both the Catholic Church and the court’s resources by channeling potentially explosive litigation into private backrooms where the cardinal’s dollars could make all the difference.

The legacy of power among Catholic judges in Los Angeles goes back decades. For years, until recently, no non-Catholic held the position of presiding judge. The St. Thomas More Society sponsors the annual Red Mass, a special church service for prominent members of the legal community. The society seeks “to provide a haven where those who are committed to their Catholic faith can find fellowship and encouragement in the face of overwhelming media and cultural forces working against that pursuit.” “The leadership of Los Angeles Superior Court is almost always Catholic,” says one local judge, who is not. “There is a real interest by people running the courts to protect the church and its assets and preserve papal law. It’s like a scared cow.”

Although the judges handling the clergy cases, Marvin Lager and Peter Lichtman, are not members of the St. Thomas More Society, they still have to deal with the political influence of the church if they are to function in Los Angeles, the nation’s largest archdiocese, with 5 million Catholics. Anyone who questions an institutional juggernaut like the church in the name of judicial independence runs the risk of being accused of being anti-Catholic, according to another Los Angeles judge, a non-Catholic. Similar pressure exists among Catholics, the judge says. “The Catholic Church is very totalitarian,” says the judge. “No doubt there are those who are concerned about perceptions among fellow Catholics that they are disloyal to their faith.”

Deference to Mahony and the Catholic Church bodes ill for Dennis. Although Mahony was not around at the time of her molestation, in the 1970s, he embodies the evil done to her for the simple reason that he concealed Rucker and other known pedophiles, lied about concealing them, then when his back was to the wall embarked on a high-stakes legal and public relations campaign to save himself. A key moment came in August 2002. Mahony admitted to concealing Rucker and seven other molester priests, while claiming that his dismissal of 17 other priest-pedophiles earned him a reputation as a reformer. Such logic does not hold up. When asked if Mahony conveys a mixed message, retired Los Angeles Judge Richard “Skip” Byrne, a prominent Catholic and the head of the archdiocese’s Clergy Misconduct Oversight Board, replies, “No question about it. I can see how people have a hard time accepting that.”

 

Likewise, Mahony’s recent denouncing of hundreds of accused priests, whose names were already public, including some who remain in the ministry, is of little solace. “May God help us all,” Dennis writes in an e-mail upon reading Mahony’s disclosure last week, in which he expresses regret for his “mistakes” — two days before a court hearing on his refusal to release Rucker documents. “Mahony will say anything to save face, and he believes he can get away with anything,” she says. “The church thinks it is above the law.”

 

Mahony’s impulse to deny new allegations until they are undeniable is shameless, and yields easily to a willingness to sacrifice former members of his inner circle like lambs to a slaughter. In a lawsuit filed late last year, former vicar for clergy Richard Loomis was accused of molesting a Los Angeles–area boy from 1969 to 1971. Yet he remained in the ministry. Recently a second person accused Loomis of molestation, and the church asked him to step down and quickly distanced itself. Loomis was responsible for reviewing child-abuse allegations from 1996 to 2000. When the clergy scandal broke in Los Angeles, Loomis left the administration to pursue parish work as a priest. “We are so disappointed in Monsignor Loomis,” Mahony’s lawyer Hennigan said last week, less than two weeks after the archdiocese stood by Loomis’ denial of the first charge to surface.

Recently, criminal-defense attorneys for accused former priest Michael Wempe complained to the judge at his preliminary hearing that only the prosecutors had received a database of alleged victims from lawyers for the archdiocese, allowing them to round up corroborating witnesses. Wempe, whom Mahony reassigned as a hospital chaplain at Cedars-Sinai despite knowledge that he is a molester, is accused of molesting 13 youths from 1972 to 1995, and awaits a criminal trial. Such moves by the cardinal appear aimed at shielding himself and church officials. “The church has done a good job of covering up the culpability of Mahony and his vicars and bishops,” Richard Farnell, a former prosecutor and now a trial lawyer in Newport Beach, says.

That may be an understatement. Mahony and his fellow bishops have been compared to La Cosa Nostra by Frank Keating, the former head of a National Review Board of lay Catholics handpicked by the bishops to monitor the church. He was forced to resign for his remarks last year. Keating saw firsthand how Mahony attempted to undermine independent auditors such as the John Jay College of Criminal Justice by encouraging lack of cooperation from the bishops. When the John Jay study was due, Mahony released his own report — exclusively to the Times.

Mahony is not alone in causing victims like Dennis to feel as if they are being re-victimized. That’s where it gets messy. Survivors of abuse have come to regard their own attorneys as being more concerned with the economics of the situation than justice. After coming forward almost two years ago, Dennis is disappointed that trial lawyers who promised to fight for accountability have allowed the church to keep a lid on the clergy sex-abuse scandal. “I want a trial so bad, it hurts,” she says. “I want to scream and holler and talk about what happened to me.”

Yet the examination of church documents, if it takes place at all, takes place behind closed doors. The possibility for the church to quietly settle hundreds of abuse claims hangs heavy. “Our lawyers say they will do whatever they have to do for us, but it seems like it’s coming down to them making enough money versus forcing the truth out of the church,” says sex-abuse survivor Steven Sanchez. “If we end up settling, then no one gets punched in the stomach. I want Mahony to get punched in the stomach.”

 

Such distrust by victims of their attorneys is particularly troubling in light of a secret agreement by some tough-talking trial lawyers on the night of December 24, 2002, to negotiate in private with the Catholic Church. Trial lawyers Raymond Boucher, Katherine Freberg and John Manly were in the chambers of Superior Court Judge Peter Lichtman along with J. Michael Hennigan, the archdiocese’s attorney. Boucher had filed a class-action suit that was before Lichtman after successfully lobbying for a new law that summer that for one year waived the statute of limitations for older claims of abuse. Boucher orchestrated his legislative coup at the peak of the national clergy scandal along with Stockton trial lawyer Larry Drivon and state Senator Joe Dunn, a former trial lawyer. The church never contested the law, which passed unanimously. “It was power politics, plain and simple,” says Drivon of a move that turned clergy sex abuse into a business for trial lawyers and a headache for the trial courts.

 

The expectation that night in Lichtman’s chambers was that trial lawyers would file an onslaught of sex-abuse lawsuits against the church in 2003. Lichtman, one of the premier settlement judges in the state, would likely end up handling those cases. So Hennigan, the church lawyer, made a proposal. “I asked them if they would agree to hold off filing lawsuits for the first 90 days of 2003, so we could negotiate in Lichtman’s court over a potential settlement,” Hennigan says.

The incentive for Hennigan was obvious: avoid the kind of scrutiny created by active litigation. For Boucher and Freberg, attorneys with small-to-medium-sized firms, the incentive was to avoid the cost of having to try so many lawsuits at once, as they were on their way to gathering more than 300 clients and 100 clients, respectively. Manly, who now has more than 50 clients himself, went along with the deal, he says, because he had faith that the clergy lawsuits could be streamlined without abandoning the goal of rooting out evidence of a conspiracy. So the trial lawyers agreed not to sue for 90 days and to negotiate in private in front of Lichtman.

The 90-day agreement, however, turned into 14 months of private negotiations, following a decision by the Judicial Council of California to coordinate all of the clergy cases in Southern California into one court. One reason for such an action is to prevent a flood of lawsuits from clogging the courts and to avoid a barrage of appeals from courts around the state. Coordination of massive legal actions is common in product-liability cases or insurance-fraud cases where there are hundreds or thousands of victims. Besides being more efficient for the court, which currently is in a budget crisis, coordination often leads to groundbreaking global settlements. It was a challenge that Lichtman, a candidate for assistant presiding judge in Los Angeles County, relished.

Lichtman is an ambitious and brilliant settlement judge caught up in the counterproductive politics of the Los Angeles Superior Court. “There are factions downtown among the judges that place people at different ends of the spectrum,” says one attorney with an insider’s knowledge of the judiciary. “One faction prefers Lichtman didn’t have the case or would fail, while others support him.”

Then there is the St. Thomas More Society, the insider says, which both hovers over Lichtman and lets its presence be felt among other judges who may be called upon to rule on clergy sex-abuse matters. The insider went on to say that the long arm of the church has reached all the way to the highest courts in the state, as Mahony contacted justices on the 2nd District Court of Appeal, the state Supreme Court and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for legal advice when the scandal broke. (Had such advice been offered, it would require justices to disqualify themselves from hearing cases related to the church. None accepted the offer, to the insider’s knowledge. When asked, Appellate Justice Paul Boland, one of the justices Mahony is supposed to have called, denies any contact with the cardinal.)

The court hierarchy of Los Angeles Superior Court, the nation’s largest trial court, is silent on these matters. And Chief Justice Ronald George of the state Supreme Court, a powerful man known for leadership and accessibility, will not touch the subject with a 10-foot cross. Besides his political power, George has authority to sign off on coordinated lawsuits and the assignment of judges to such cases. When reached for comment, the chief justice answers no to the following questions: Was the court’s budget a factor in ordering hundreds of cases coordinated? Did you consider the potential for a process that could favor the church by necessitating secrecy in settlement negotiations? Are you a member of the St. Thomas More Society? “Good luck ferreting that out,” George says, when asked if the Catholic Church has undue influence on the judiciary.

 

Besides the taint of judicial and religious politics in the clergy scandal, the basic downside for survivors of sex abuse seeking public accountability has been that a process aimed at global settlement cannot be effective unless it takes place in private. And Jackie Dennis is one of the survivors driven by public accountability. “The last thing I wanted was to become part of a ghetto of victims, forced behind closed doors,” Dennis says. “And that is just what has happened.”

Dennis had suffered in private for decades after the abuse by Rucker in the mid-1970s, which lasted several years and took place in her own home as well as inside St. Agatha’s and the church rectory. Her childhood was marred by antisocial and self-destructive behavior, she says, including a preoccupation with death. In 11th grade, she overdosed on PCP. “I stopped learning,” she says. Years of bad relationships and emotional meltdowns followed. She is fortunate now to be married to a management-level employee of the Metropolitan Water District, Jeffry Dennis, who is supportive of her cause as a survivor. The couple have a comfortable townhouse in Inglewood and two daughters in nursing school, Monique, 22, and Laura, 19. For personal reasons related to her struggle to overcome sexual abuse, Dennis was reluctant to go public with her trauma.

 

One day, however, in March 2002, Dennis opened the newspaper and saw Rucker’s face. “I almost went into shock,” she says. “I had seen him only in my dreams for years.”

After Dennis’ father confronted Rucker in 1975, the priest disappeared from St. Agatha’s, she says, although the National Catholic Directory shows him there until 1980. Dennis believes he was in hiding or in treatment. “There are too many blank spaces in his record,” Dennis, whose two sisters also claim Rucker molested them, says. “It’s wrong.”

Dennis contacted a reporter for the Times and identified herself as one of Rucker’s victims in the spring of 2002. After her name appeared in print, she began receiving calls from lawyers. She had been watching what was happening in Boston. Demonstrations, arrests and convictions of pedophile priests; open-court battles resulting in documents revealing how church officials concealed the abuse; a cardinal about to step down. “Boston will pale in comparison to Los Angeles,” the California lawyers pledged.

“Part of me knew that what happened in Boston could never happen here,” Dennis says. “I just knew the Vatican would do everything in its power to prevent that from ever happening again. But I realized I could not go on with my life the way it was, blocking everything out instead of dealing with it.” And she could still hope. In Boston, possibly the most Catholic city in the country, judges had forced the church to come clean, while the world watched in amazement.

A Massachusetts mediation expert believes Boston church officials made a fundamental mistake by not offering a global settlement in early 2002, before the court forced it to disclose explosive documents indicating a cover-up. “If they had offered $100 million early on, they could have avoided some of the revelations that blew this thing wide open,” the expert says.

Lawyers for the Los Angeles Archdiocese learned from the Boston experience. They did not want to get dragged into an alley fight. Hennigan’s move to talk the trial lawyers in Los Angeles into a negotiation early on has protected Mahony from the cascade of damning revelations that brought down Cardinal Bernard Law. The strategy has worn down victims like Dennis who want both closure and accountability. Lawyers spent almost all of 2003 in Los Angeles haggling behind closed doors about insurance policies and potential settlement amounts. No one has examined the extent to which Mahony and other officials shuffled priests around. “We are cut off from exposing the collusion of the church hierarchy by the very way certain lawyers and the court have set up the process,” Arthur Goldberg, Dennis’ lawyer, says.

Goldberg has been critical of the coordinated approach to settlement. Like the other trial lawyers, he has promised Dennis, her sisters and their mother, who also are suing the church, that he will not settle their cases until Mahony is forced to reveal what he and church officials knew. “My clients want the history and the truth to come out,” he says. Goldberg is optimistic that Mahony’s PR strategy will backfire. “It was in the church’s interest over a year ago to settle, because there was less public exposure and less awareness about the breadth of the scandal,” he says. “Now, the church has gotten itself into a big hole that it can’t get out of. It is impossible to just offer money to settle these cases now. Full disclosure is required. And when the community sees what the bishops have done to conceal this problem, in the full light of day, there will be outrage.”

Stepping first into the sunlight and then into the shadows of private, group negotiations has been difficult for Dennis. During numerous meetings and more than a dozen telephone conversations over the last three months, she has shown different moods and outlooks from day to day. Some days she is depressed and tired; others she is angry and combative. “I ‰ wanted a chance to tell my story and hold someone accountable,” Dennis says wearily one day last November, sitting in her attorney’s Echo Park office. Then, last week she says, “I have a picture in my head: Mahony’s face and my fist,” after the cardinal released his own study of clergy sex abuse.

 

But standing in her way of a trial to vindicate her anger are the mutual interests of Hennigan and Boucher, the lead trial attorney and liaison to the court for 500 victims. And although they are adversaries, Hennigan and Boucher are on the same side of one critical issue, and that is keeping the negotiations from falling apart. With 300 clients and millions of dollars of his own money already invested in the clergy cases, Boucher faces financial hurdles to delivering on his promise to provide strong individual representation. Having positioned himself as a major player, he has drawn fire from sex-abuse victims and lawyers with smaller client rosters. “How can you represent 300 people who have been through what we have been through?” Dennis says. “Some lawyers want to treat sexual abuse as if it were earthquake damage,” says Goldberg. “But we’re not talking about broken homes. We’re talking about broken lives.”

Leaders of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), including some of Boucher’s own clients, have grown cynical. Lee Bashforth, a leader of SNAP, had a trial date set for late 2003 in a sex-abuse case against Michael Wempe, when the coordinated action scooped up his claim and forced it behind closed doors. “I’m concerned this whole situation benefits the church, which is flexing its legal and financial muscle,” Bashforth, who is not represented by Boucher, says. “We were promised we could stand alone and have our cases evaluated as individuals, on the merits. This hush-hush approach does not meet that goal.”

Says Sanchez, who is a Boucher client, “I think our lawyers like negotiating with [the church’s lawyers]. They look like they want to settle between 70 and 90 percent of the cases so they can have enough money to litigate the rest.” Boucher has had to ratchet down client expectations of getting their day in court, Sanchez says. Recently the lawyer told a group of survivors that only five out of 100 cases contain the smoking-gun documents that were revealed in Boston. And the California budget crisis is squeezing the court budgets, Boucher tells clients. Some are expecting a take-it-or-leave-it deal, with no alternative but a nasty court fight after the scandal has been settled away. “Our lawyers have already threatened us with the budget situation,” says Sanchez, a financial adviser. “I was intimidated by my priest. I don’t need to be intimidated by my own lawyer.”

Boucher sees the standoff in civil court as a long-term chess game. In addition to trying to temper expectations about what the court system can provide, he assumes the most incriminating documents have been destroyed or secreted away to the Vatican, where they will never see the light of day. “They’re either lost, in disarray or cannot be located,” he says. “I wasn’t there when they were shredded, or when [the archdiocese] sent them to Rome, so I cannot say for sure that’s what happened, but that’s what we think.”

He is annoyed by questions about his adherence to a secretive negotiation process. “If people would just let [the process] play itself out, instead of getting in the way and fucking things up . . .” he trails off. “You are hell-bent on fucking these clients up,” he says when asked by the Weekly how much longer the private negotiation can hang together. “You are going to ruin lives, and you don’t have to look these victims in the eye or worry about them after it’s over.”

Boucher casts a particularly negative pall over the prospects of a vigorous public trial against Mahony and the priests he has concealed. As opposed to the stunning catharsis that took place in Boston, he favors preserving the cardinal. Ousting Mahony is unnecessary, he says — a position which meshes with Hennigan’s number-one goal. “Other than the documents, the church in Boston has not admitted to anything,” he says. “They got rid of Cardinal Law. So what? It was a big splash with no ripples. Victims there got [sodomized] for years and walked away with a couple hundred grand apiece. I don’t see anyone dancing in the streets.”

 

In Los Angeles, it’s hard to imagine a better outcome at the moment. Neither the lawyers controlling the mediation nor Lichtman are willing to fight in court, so the public may never see the truth. Boucher has said the church has $10 billion in insurance coverage, and if Hennigan can bring half that to the table, hundreds of victims would likely take the money. Those left over could find that Mahony successfully maneuvered himself out of trouble, while the public’s attention span died out. “The judge has not set a trial date,” plaintiffs’ lawyer Farnell says. “And I don’t see him doing it. People have motivations for doing things,” he adds, in response to questions about the judge’s decision to also stay behind closed doors. “It would be a feather in any judge’s cap to resolve 500 cases of child molestation. That would stay on your résumé for the rest of your career.”

 

Victims in Los Angeles look in every direction and see deference to an institution that has engaged in immoral if not criminal conduct. “The church gets to pick the players, the umpires and the rules,” Sanchez says. “We look around and realize we are alone.”

Even for those who want to speak out, there is no tolerance for more upheaval. Detractors of Mahony’s response to charges of a cover-up seem to suffer consequences. Priests and lay Catholics are afraid of speaking out. Parishioners at St. Bede the Venerable, in La Cañada–Flintridge, point to the odd disappearance of the Rev. Dan White in September, after he said in his homily that he questioned his calling because of the way his church was handling the pedophilia crisis. “He gave his homily at 5 p.m. on a Saturday night, and by Monday morning he was on a sabbatical to an undisclosed location,” says a sex-abuse survivor.

“The church must say what is right, but that does not make it true,” says one area priest. “Jesus was dissatisfied with this kind of church, one that lacks spirituality.”

Jackie Dennis is placing her faith in Goldberg, but one man is not going to change the course of a statewide legal action complicated by secrecy, power and an underfunded court system that is looking for shortcuts to justice. Facing such realities is frustrating, she says. “What is the message they are sending with all this secrecy?” she asks on one of her depressed days. “I feel sick,” she writes in an e-mail in January, after the bishops have patted themselves on the back with a report of new reforms that they claim are working.

Her marriage is strong, she says, but it is being tested by her inability to focus on anything but her struggle. “My husband comes home from work, and there’s no fire in the hearth or dinner on the stove,” she says. “I’m usually at my computer, or off in my own world, dealing with my dark moments of the soul.”

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