Journalists covering the clergy sex-abuse scandal have dogged the Catholic hierarchy from Boston to Phoenix, but the Los Angeles Times has skirted around Cardinal Roger Mahony and helped him craft his own public image. With the criminal and civil justice system favoring secrecy in examining charges that Mahony has concealed pedophiles, critics accuse the Times of caving to pressure from Mahony, at times acting as his platform to urge the public to look forward, not back, at what he’s done.
Media experts and observers of the clergy scandal point to a history of deference to the Catholic Church on the part of the Times. Under these circumstances one might look to Times media critic Tim Rutten, but he’s not supposed to write about his own newspaper. Any stories openly critical of the cardinal are by columnist Steve Lopez. Meanwhile, Mahony has cultivated an exclusive relationship with Times religion reporter Larry Stammer, who, sources say, shaves the rough edges off stories by his own colleagues. And recent accusations against 10 priests that went unreported by the Times when the paper had exclusive access to Mahony call to question the value of horse-trading with a man under investigation.
The most blatant attempt by Mahony to bully the Times came in July 2002 at the height of the national scandal. Mahony, attorney J. Michael Hennigan and PR mogul Michael Sitrick met in private with Times editors to head off an investigative effort led by reporter Glenn Bunting. They complained about what they considered negative coverage. (Egged on by the now-defunct New Times, the Times could not ignore that Mahony allowed former priest Michael Baker and numerous others to remain in ministry despite knowledge of child molestation.) The cardinal agreed to cooperate with the Times on the investigative story, providing information and sitting for interviews with Bunting and others.
Sitrick and company’s role was to turn the Times’ story around and burnish Mahony’s tainted image. According to Hennigan, Sitrick associate and former journalist Robert Emmers delivered sensitive information to Times reporters about accused priests, without waiving the legal privileges Mahony claims in criminal and civil court. The result was an August 18, 2002, report that exposed Mahony’s neglect in allowing eight pedophile priests to stay in ministry but also cast him as a reformer for spiriting away 17 others whom he failed to disclose to law enforcers. Although it is the definitive story to date, it was compromised by Sitrick’s involvement and created a misleading impression of Mahony as a reformer, deflating the rising scandal in Los Angeles. It was the last investigative effort by the Times to come anywhere near the cardinal.
Hennigan became more satisfied with what he read in the Times. “They got much better,” he said late in 2002. Following the August 18 story, Mahony coasted. Weeks later, the Times heralded his christening of the $200 million Cathedral of Our Lady of the Queen of Angels in September 2002, and bumped charges of wrongdoing by the Catholic hierarchy to the back burner. That December, an in-depth story on accused pedophile Jerold Lindner, a Jesuit priest, made no mention of Mahony or a clergy sex abuse scandal.
Reporters who continue to cover the church scandal complain to sources that their efforts are hindered by editorial decisions and by Stammer, a religion reporter who intercepts stories that are too critical of Mahony.
“There are divisions within the Times,” says one source, pointing to a recent story by Stammer and Richard Winton that praised the Catholic Church for its compliance with sex-abuse reforms. The Times had received an advance copy of a compliance report paid for by the church. According to the source, the positive veneer of the story came from Stammer. Winton declined to comment. “Mahony: Protecting Minors ‘Job 1,’” declared a headline last week, as Mahony gave exclusive access to the Times to release the names of 244 accused priests while broadcasting in a report his own version of the clergy scandal, which paints him as a compassionate reformer — despite his obfuscation of justice in court. “That was Stammer’s handiwork too, I’m afraid,” says a source familiar with Times reporters.
Stammer, a veteran journalist, has been a target of criticism since Mahony’s internal e-mails were leaked to KFI radio in 2002.
The e-mails show Mahony gushing about Stammer’s willingness to write stories with a positive spin. “Now I am freed from the accusation that I am hiding from the press and unwilling to discuss these issues publicly,” Mahony wrote in an e-mail on April 30, 2002, after a press junket ended his complete silence on the clergy scandal. “Larry Stammer said that a lot of good has been done with the press and media by doing the interview, and that he stands ready to help if we have a story we want to get out.” Stammer became known around the Times newsroom as “Mahony’s boy.” Stammer did not return calls for comment.
When former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, the president of a national lay Catholic review board, compared Mahony and other bishops to the Mafia last year, Stammer broke the front-page story and covered it for days. With exclusive access to the cardinal, Stammer ignited a nationwide furor over Keating’s impolitic remarks by reporting the stern rebuke from Mahony that Keating had “gone too far.” Keating was soon forced to retire.
But Stammer is not solely responsible for the widespread perception that, as an institution, the Times has allowed Mahony to control the media. A history of institutional deference goes back at least to 1988, when former priest Nicholas Aguilar-Rivera was criminally charged with molesting 10 altar boys at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in El Sereno and at St. Agatha’s Church in South Los Angeles. The scandal rocked the two parishes, but just three months after the story broke, the Times reported that the archdiocese had improved its procedures for reporting molestation to the police. Quoting Mahony, the Times reported that sexual-abuse allegations are best handled quietly, both for the sake of the families and to avoid inflating the situation. “Our professional staff have always cautioned against overreacting,” the cardinal said, unquestioned.
Throughout the 1990s, as serial predators Richard Henry and Ted Llanos were exposed, the Times never got close to challenging the church hierarchy. In 1998, Mahony testified at a trial in Stockton that while bishop there in the early 1980s, he had no reason to believe former priest and serial molester Oliver O’Grady posed a threat to children. Jurors returned a $26 million verdict against the diocese, and some later said they thought Mahony lied. Yet the Times ignored the story. Larry Drivon, the lawyer who cross-examined Mahony, has never let Times reporters hear the end of it. “How can the most powerful cardinal in the country lie on the stand and that not be a story?” Drivon frequently says. In October, Times reporter William Lobdell publicly apologized on behalf of his newspaper at a gathering of sex-abuse survivors in Los Angeles. “Every time I see Larry Drivon, I feel guilty the Times never covered his trial verdict in Stockton,” Lobdell told a room of 100 or so people.
Sex-abuse survivors and their attorneys take an increasingly dim view of the Times. “The Times will publish only what it has to,” says one plaintiff’s attorney who talks to reporters on a regular basis. “Whenever Mahony looks like he might be in trouble, the Times gives him a way out,” says Richard Farnell, who represents victims of priest sexual abuse. “The Times has done a terrible job,” a local trial attorney says.
“We need someone to tell the truth,” complains sex-abuse survivor Steven Sanchez.
Times City Editor Sam Enriquez notes the Times has gone to court to unseal a judge’s ruling on grand-jury matters and says, “The stories speak for themselves. People may be disappointed that we haven’t tied all the threads together, but as far as any policy to protect Mahony or the church, it’s just not true.”
Media experts note that the Boston press set the bar high in 2001 and 2002. The Pulitzer Prize–winning Globe, the Herald and the alternative weekly Phoenix were relentless in their attempts to uncover scandal. But they also say that it is not uncommon for a newspaper to avoid taking on powerful religious institutions. “If a newspaper can avoid an open breach with any large segment in the community, it will do so,” William Drummond, a former Times reporter and now a professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, says. “It’s too dangerous.”
Drummond says editorial board meetings like the one Mahony used to dampen news coverage take place all the time. “I don’t think there’s any editor in the country that’s strong and powerful enough to tell a Catholic archdiocese to go take a hike,” he says. “It’s not hard to imagine some sort of conciliation on the Times’ part.” Working through a PR agency increases deferential coverage, he adds. “It’s a bad idea, but you do what you have to do,” Drummond says. “These [PR] guys are pros. They massage everything.”
One media observer, a former journalist, says of the Times’ reporting on the cover-up of the Catholic priest sex scandal, “It’s a sordid story, and people don’t like to believe it’s been going on, although it obviously has. But you don’t want to get sued. Journalistic institutions are political too, and they have to live with the community.”
Lack of a competing daily newspaper lessens the Times’ urgency of investigating a controversial story, the former journalist says. “You get a certain blandness and willingness to overlook issues. Competing newspapers sometime force you to catch up.”