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Cardinal Untruths

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.

"Mahony would have to be deaf, dumb and stupid not to have known of priests breaking their vows in the 1960s," says a member of the clergy in Los Angeles. "Having sex is one way many found out whether the priesthood was the right calling for them." Father Thomas Doyle, an Air Force chaplain and canon law expert says, "As chancellor and vicar, the number one issue that takes up your time is dealing with problem priests."

One case that Mahony had trouble recalling is illuminated in confidential memos from 1970 that show him overseeing the transfer of Monsignor Anthony Herdegen from one parish to another. Mahony, in his deposition, denies any knowledge of reports that young boys visited Herdegen in his private residence in the rectory. He says Herdegen was transferred for being too conservative. But in December 2003, the Fresno Bee reported that two brothers accused Herdegen of sexually abusing them in the 1960s and 70s. Herdegen served in 10 parishes before retiring in 1985.

More explicit records from the Diocese of Stockton show Mahony knee-deep in personnel problems. Yet he maintained in his deposition that three accused molesters were reported to him before 1985 — a claim that contradicts trial testimony he gave in 1998, in which he admitted only one. Personnel records suggest there may have been more than three.

The subject at trial in 1998 was Oliver O’Grady, a pedophile Mahony transferred in 1984, despite a 1976 letter of apology from O’Grady to an 11-year-old molestation victim, and a psychiatrist’s report stating O’Grady had a "severe defect in maturation in the matter of sex and social relationships." Mahony claims he never looked in O’Grady’s confidential file, however, so he could not have possibly seen the letter. And, he said that he did not consider the psychiatrist’s report to pose a serious problem.

Even if true, such indifference is shocking. Sources say O’Grady was the subject of numerous molestation settlements before Mahony arrived. But again, as incoming bishop, Mahony says he never inquired about the fitness of the priests in his diocese. He says he didn’t even have a key to the confidential-file cabinet, which is odd, because such files are kept secret from most everyone except the bishop. O’Grady was convicted of lewd conduct involving a child in 1993 and later deported to Ireland. At the 1998 trial Mahony was asked if any other priests were involved with any kind of sexual misconduct with children. Mahony replied, "I cannot recall another case." Jurors, some of whom said they did not believe Mahony, awarded $30 million to O’Grady’s victims. A judge later cut the award to $7 million.

In fact, O’Grady, who responded to a recent lawsuit with a 10-page anatomical explanation claiming he could not have anally raped a boy 150 times based on his own "medical research, including the Internet," was not the only accused priest Mahony dealt with at Stockton. Newly surfaced documents, some handwritten by Mahony, show that he took swift action against two accused priests visiting from Mexico in the early 1980s.

In 1981, Mahony learned of families who complained that Father Antonio Munoz had taken their sons to Tijuana and "had some type of sexual misconduct." Mahony fired the priest. "Your assignment and your faculties were canceled because of problems of a very serious and grave nature," he wrote to Munoz in 1982. Mahony then met with a family in 1984 that claimed their two boys drank beer with Father Hector Camacho in his bedroom, where the priest later molested them. Mahony typed a five-page memo of his firing of Camacho. "It is my intention to take every possible step to be certain that no other young person is harmed," Mahony wrote. Mahony also wrote two letters to the Modesto police and letters to the bishops in all of the western states warning them not to hire Camacho, who returned to Mexico under threat of prosecution.

At his deposition Mahony was asked why he did not acknowledge these incidents at O’Grady’s trial in 1998. "It was some 13 years after I had left Stockton," Mahony said. "We had many events in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and I was very preoccupied. We had the visit of the [Pope]. We had earthquakes. We had riots. We had everything. I simply did not remember everything that happened in Stockton."

Sipe, who witnessed the deposition, was astounded. "Lawyers might call that perjury, but a lay person would say, ‘My God, that’s a lie.’ Even if he had a genuine memory lapse it raises questions about his ability to lead." Such perceptions devastated Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston, when a judge ruled that his deposition testimony did not appear truthful.

A review of personnel records during Mahony’s tenure as bishop of Stockton suggest he was more involved with priest pedophilia problems than he admits. Clergy Personnel Board minutes from December 12, 1984, concern a man named Father Titian Miani. "[Miani] seems to be causing dissension in the parish," the minutes state. "Reports have come from very credible witnesses. We have no process to deal with priests who act unprofessionally, nor a way to listen to credible witnesses in such cases." Miani was charged in 2003 with two counts of committing a lewd act on a child in the mid-1960s. Charges were dropped in 2003 after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down California’s statute of limitations for child sex abuse.

Then there are cryptic entries such as one about a priest who "is back after visiting missionaries. He’ll try to use moral persuasion. We are informing anyone from Welfare, etc., to use civil arm of Stockton to deal with him if necessary." And this, related to another priest: "OK right now, not bad-bad." Sipe, the author of the book Celibacy in Crisis, says, "‘Bad’ means alcohol problems. ‘Bad-bad’ means fucking kids."

After scandal erupted in 2002 Mahony admitted to leaving eight accused molesters in ministry as cardinal in Los Angeles. That includes Michael Baker, who admitted to Mahony in 1986 that he had molested several youths, but who Mahony kept in ministry for 14 years. Baker was charged with 34 counts of molestation, which were dismissed as a result of the Supreme Court ruling. And it includes Michael Wempe, who faces new criminal charges after 42 counts of sex crimes were dismissed last year.

Yet Mahony states that even in the 1980s he knew he must remove priests from ministry when he received credible allegations of molestation. "I knew that we wanted priests serving in our parishes who were not going to be a danger to anybody," he testified. But he also said that O’Grady’s admitted sexual urges toward a 9-year-old would not lead to his removal. Last Thursday, Mahony told a reporter from CNN that the protocol of the 1980s was to leave accused priests in ministry because, "We misunderstood pedophilia to be a moral weakness or a sin, something that could be dealt with through spiritual counseling. We now know that is inadequate." Mahony has offered similar explanations to explain Baker, Wempe and others who remained in ministry well into the 1990s.

Thomas Brandlin, a deacon in Los Angeles, has a theory about Mahony. In 1986, Brandlin was accused of molesting a boy in Santa Barbara. Even after Brandlin obtained a declaration of factual innocence from the Santa Barbara District Attorney’s Office, Mahony denied his full faculties for 10 more years, until Brandlin hired a canon lawyer and brought his case to the Vatican. "He has no plan," Brandlin says of Mahony. "He does and says what he needs to get out of whatever situation he is confronted with."

Maybe Mahony should stick to memory loss after all.

To download the complete text of Cardinal Mahony’s deposition, click here.
To download part of Cardinal Mahony's testimony from a 1998 civil trial, click here.
To download a letter from Cardinal Mahony to the Modesto Police regarding Father Camacho, click here.
To download a 1984 memo from Cardinal Mahony regarding Father Camacho, click here.


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