RAY BOUCHER, THE EMBATTLED plaintiffs’ attorney for more than 300 victims of Catholic-priest molestation, emerged from a small conference room at the Biltmore Hotel and wanted a hug.

After five years of bitter litigation against an obstinate religious institution with an unrelenting will to keep its secrets hidden, who could blame him?

Hours earlier, Cardinal Roger Mahony had slipped in and out of court through a side door, having just inked an eye-popping $660 million settlement of more than 500 cases alleging the most heinous act imaginable: the sexual abuse of children.

Less than a mile away, Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley insinuated that Mahony and leaders of the nation’s largest Catholic archdiocese had committed crimes the D.A. could not prove, such as shielding pedophile priests and obstructing justice.

Cooley’s comments sounded like a vain attempt to throw gas on the dying embers of a conflict, but they seemed to prove, once and for all, the limitations of the justice system in resolving moral crises.

“You can hug me,” Boucher told a reporter, his spirit drained, as victims and their lawyers mingled in an adjacent room that Boucher had reserved for media inquiries and a gathering of damaged souls.

Out in the hallway, Boucher’s partner in litigation, Stockton attorney Larry Drivon, ruddy and hoarse, was making plans to go fishing in Costa Rica with Manny Vega, an Oxnard police officer who had been a leading voice among survivors of abuse.

Vega and Drivon were visibly older and heavier than when Drivon and Boucher went to Sacramento in 2002 and lobbied for a change in state law that allowed hundreds of victims of sexual abuse to join in an unprecedented mass litigation regardless of how old their claims were.

Asked how he felt, Boucher replied: “Numb. Empty. Gratified. The system provided some justice. It’s inadequate. We’ll never know the full story. But it’s time.” Then, like a punch-drunk boxer at the end of the 15th round, he said he still harbored a desire to go to trial.

Say what?

Despite his lingering desire, it just was not possible to pursue trial, he explained. Last week, a client died of heart failure under the strain of waiting for a day in court that might never come, he said. It was not fair to deny closure to those with weaker claims and uncertain physical health so that the stout yet damaged could seek justice before a jury.

Boucher seemed to be saying that the same victims who came out of the woodwork for a chance to rectify older cases of abuse — thanks to his maneuvering in Sacramento — were the main reason for ending the fight.

And still, at this point, few could argue with him. Those conversations took place weeks ago, as the prospect of closure loomed. It got ugly, according to some of his clients, but even the staunchest advocates for truth and justice were accepting the end now too.

MOST OF THEM KNEW LONG AGO that shocking courtroom revelations and Mahony’s ouster were never going to happen. True, they settled for quite a bit of money, but also for the realization that their experiences together, at times at odds with one another, and with Boucher, would have to do.

“I wanted to force out the truth, but we’re all in it together,” says Lee Bashforth, a fiery leader of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “The best way to end the suffering is to end it together. Even if we had gone to court, it would have been the same old crap,” he continues, referring to the scorched-earth legal tactics that the church used to avoid turning over priests’ files, after inducing the victims’ lawyers in 2003 to engage in voluntary mediation of hundreds of claims.

Had they been hoodwinked?

It wasn’t that simple, Bashforth says. “We thought the trial system was the way to get the truth out,” he says. “But we got pitted against one another. Today is bittersweet. No matter what, I’ll always be trying to make amends to that little boy [I was] at age 7.”

Steven Sanchez, a survivor of sex abuse and a leading advocate, had inspired his family in the face of such pain. His wife, Suzanne, and sister, Cynthia Phelps, were proud of him for his leadership.

“I’ve known Steven for 20 years, and we’ve been married for 15,” his wife says. “I just found out about his abuse five years ago. I always knew he was an extraordinary guy. He did what he had to do.” Phelps adds, “To take a horrible situation and to help others in their healing, that’s a beautiful thing.”

Much can be made of Mahony’s role in bringing these people together. But if anything, the end to the litigation shows that it is now — and maybe always was — a private matter between Catholics and the leaders of their church.

After all, priest sexual abuse dates back 1,600 years, according to church scholars. And yet some Catholic leaders, including Mahony, say they have been aware of it only in the last couple of decades. Mahony made this assertion under oath, at a deposition in 2004.

Testimony, memos and letters at the time offered a rare glimpse into his formative years as a priest and bishop in Fresno and Stockton from 1962 to 1985, and reflected on his moral standing as shepherd of 5 million Catholics in Los Angeles.

Mahony emerged as a man of contradictions and memory problems. He claimed never to have known a priest to have sex before 1968. He claimed no knowledge of any sort of molestation until 1985.

YET MAHONY WAS A LICENSED social worker from 1964 to 1970 and served as a chancellor and a vicar between 1975 and 1980 — rising through the ranks of the Catholic Church as the Vatican was disseminating procedures for dealing with priests who had been accused of solicitation and pedophilia.

Victims’ lawyers have long suggested that perhaps he could have done more in 1984, when he was notified that Father Oliver O’Grady, then a Stockton priest, had been a serial molester.

Or that, once a cardinal in Los Angeles, Mahony could have taken swift action as he did in 1981, when, according to documents released with his deposition transcript, he learned of families who complained that Father Antonio Munoz had taken their sons to Tijuana and “had some type of sexual misconduct.”

Back then, Mahony fired the offending priest. “Your assignment and your faculties were canceled because of problems of a very serious and grave nature,” he wrote to Munoz in 1982.

However, Mahony says none of this registers anymore. “As I get older, more distant things I can’t remember,” he said at his deposition.

On Monday, Drivon summed up the tragedy: “None of us would be here today if Mahony had dialed 911. But thousands of victims would not be compensated for their pain and suffering either.”

Long before the Diocese of Orange entered into a $100 million settlement in 2004, Drivon swore to depose “everyone in sight” and fight in court “if it takes a lifetime” to expose the Catholic hierarchy.

He and Boucher had been inspired by the clergy scandal that erupted in Boston in 2002, which led to the removal of former Cardinal Bernard Law. Documents had been the Holy Grail in Boston.

But now, in Southern California, there was acknowledgment that all the documents would never come out. And as Ryan DiMaria, a victim of priest sexual abuse and a lawyer for more than 70 victims in Los Angeles and Orange counties, had said, “The most any of us will ever get from this process is some measure of healing.”

Wrapping up his interviews, Boucher looked burdened by this realization, and weary from the fight. “As a Catholic, I’m in a constant state of confusion,” he said. “I see a priest and I wonder what he may have done. The beauty of my religion is gone. It’s a loss of innocence for the victims, the lawyers and Catholics. But the church never had innocence. It’s an immovable object.”

Nevertheless, he, Drivon, dozens of other lawyers and hundreds of victims banded together and tried to move the Catholic Church. They fought, grieved, cried, and bickered among themselves.

On Monday, they simply accepted the enormity of what they had been up against all along.

Now they could rest.

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