Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
Cardinal Roger Mahony has been compared to a mafia don for his obstruction of criminal and civil justice inquiries into the Catholic clergy pedophilia scandal.
Survivors of priest sexual abuse and even the usually tepid Los Angeles Times have called for his resignation on similar grounds.
Now, a Los Angeles judge has stripped him of his holy façade and ordered him to turn over documents to a criminal grand jury, blasting him for acting not as a spiritual link to Jesus Christ but as a corporate CEO — a slippery one at that.
Rejecting the church’s First Amendment arguments to shield communications between bishops and priests, and chastising church lawyers for their misrepresentations to the court, retired Judge Thomas Nuss last week ordered the church to cough up 500 pages of documents related to priests currently under investigation. Nuss prohibited Mahony from maintaining secret archives to hide details of alleged molestation of children, which could implicate the cardinal in a cover-up of clergy sex abuse. “[Mahony] cannot use an investigation of a criminal act to urge repentance, psychological evaluation or treatment and then refuse to disclose on the grounds the State is now becoming entangled in religious matters,” Nuss ruled. “[He] may not keep confidential the potential evidence or proof of a crime by asserting that such disclosure would interfere with the communications between priests and bishops.”
The Nuss ruling marks the best chance yet for prosecutors to peel back the red curtain to see what the cardinal has been hiding. Yet Mahony, having danced circles around light-stepping District Attorney Steve Cooley for two years, and who most recently was seen in public benevolently blessing Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton, never seems to sweat.
Last Tuesday, after Nuss had released his ruling, which he kept sealed until a Court of Appeal forced him to release it, Mahony’s lawyer Mike Hennigan declared that his client was “95 percent delighted” with it. “We started with grand jury subpoenas for 30 priests and the judge has struck down all but two,” Hennigan said. “He has ruled our way with respect to 90 percent of the documents sought by the D.A.”
Hennigan was referring indirectly to the near-fatal blow delivered to Cooley last year by the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned California’s child-abuse law, squelched hundreds of criminal prosecutions of accused pedo-priests statewide, and resulted in the dismissal of criminal charges against 10 L.A. priests. Because of that ruling, which struck down the prosecution of older sex crimes, Nuss had no choice but to dismiss subpoenas relating to 30 priests under investigation before the grand jury. The D.A. then re-filed
on two cases currently before the grand jury. Separate criminal charges have already been filed against former priests Michael Wempe and Stephen Hernandez, with trial and pre-trial hearings, respectively, scheduled for
Even before he was chopped off at the knees, however, Cooley had not exactly been breathing hot down the cardinal’s neck. Since the clergy scandal broke in 2002, slow and silent has been the mantra for prosecutors, who have sought indictments of priests through the secretive grand jury process rather than aggressively serving arrest and search warrants aimed at prosecuting the Catholic hierarchy for conspiring to harbor pedophiles and obstructing justice. Then there is the two-sided face that Cooley’s office shows: one for the public, one for the grand jury. “This investigation will take us wherever it leads,” says Deputy District Attorney Jane Robison, implying that Mahony could be a target. However, Deputy District Attorney Bill Hodgman, the lead prosecutor, has yet to target anyone but individual priests before the grand jury, according to firsthand accounts. Cooley and Hodgman would not comment.
So with Nuss’ ruling piercing Mahony’s holy veil, the question is, what next, Steve?
“They want Mahony, no question about it, but I don’t see criminal behavior,” says Don Steier, who represents numerous current and former Los Angeles priests accused of molestation, including Michael Baker, Neville Rucker and Michael Wempe, three of the darkest skeletons in Mahony’s closet. (Criminal charges against Rucker and Baker were dropped last year as a result of the Supreme Court ruling. Wempe was re-charged in a new accusation after walking out of jail on older charges that were dismissed.) “Eventually the D.A. will get to look at records, and there will be titillating facts, but not like in a traditional conspiracy case where you start rolling guys up and forcing confessions.” Besides, Steier says, none of his clients are inclined to talk — not that any of them have been asked. “What incentive does the D.A. have to start cutting deals, when he hasn’t made a single case yet? These guys have figured out that it’s in their best interests to say less, not more.”
Questions about when Cooley will come down off the fence are plaguing his investigation, inside the D.A.’s Office and in the public eye. “It would benefit Cooley to explicitly go after the cardinal because it would expand the relevance of his investigation before the grand jury,” Steier says. “He could ask for more subpoenas. But he won’t do it unless he thinks he has a case. And politically it’s not so simple.”
The inbred politics of power in Los Angeles have produced some disturbing images in the last two years. But none so offensive as the cardinal sharing a public religious moment with Chief Bratton recently shown in a photograph published in the Times. “For Bratton to receive the blessing of the cardinal in public, and to allow his picture to be taken doing it, sends the wrong message to victims and to the rank-and-file officers who have busted their butts trying to make cases against priests,” plaintiffs’ attorney John Manly, a Catholic, says. “It says priests who rape children are bad, but the man at the top isn’t. It’s like going to John Gotti’s restaurant after it’s been the scene of a mob hit.” Bratton did not comment.
Sources inside the D.A.’s Office and outside agreed. But then, Cooley has not exactly sent a strong message that the cardinal is a target of any criminal investigation, and his lead prosecutor has not pushed such a case either. “I don’t think Steve Cooley is intimidated by personality,” Steier says. “If he could prove a case, he’d do it.”
An obvious starting point — albeit two years down the road — is Mahony’s inner circle. One ox that Nuss gored is the purportedly pastoral role of the vicar for clergy, usually an auxiliary bishop who is trusted with a key to secret archives that the judge has now ordered released. Besides receiving and overseeing claims of molestation, three out of the four most recent vicars for clergy under Mahony have an eerie closeness to the clergy scandal that could warrant further examination.
In the mid-1990s, Thomas Curry, now a bishop in Santa Barbara, discouraged an exiled priest accused of raping and impregnating a minor from returning to Los Angeles, where he could do further damage to “individuals or the archdiocese,” according to a letter Curry wrote. Former Vicar for Clergy Stephen Dyer accompanied former priest Michael Baker to Tucson in the late 1990s, where Baker had been accused of repeatedly molesting two brothers, and let him out of his sight, despite Baker’s admission of serial sexual abuse of children to Mahony in 1986. Richard Loomis, a former vicar who Mahony quickly and publicly removed from ministry when allegations of molestation surfaced last year, is an intriguing figure, having dealt with accusations as an administrator and now having been the target of them — not to mention getting hung out to dry by the cardinal.
“Everyone thought Baker was cured,” Steier says, in defense of Mahony and Dyer. “And what happened to Dick Loomis is key, because he never even received evidence of the charges against him before he was removed.” Yet the critical difference between Mahony’s handling of errant priests and that of shamed former Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, he says, is that the records will never show that Mahony flagrantly transferred known pedophiles from parish to parish. “And if you think that these guys are part of a closed society, then proving it is the trick.”