By John M. Broder The New York Times
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 12, 2005
LOS ANGELES The confidential personnel files of 126 clergymen in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles accused of sexual misconduct with children provide a numbing chronicle of 75 years of the church's shame, revealing case after case in which the church was warned of abuse, but failed to protect its parishioners.
In some cases, Cardinal Roger Mahony, head of the archdiocese, and his predecessors quietly shuffled the priests off to counseling and then to new assignments. In others, parents were offered counseling for their children and urged to remain silent.
Throughout the files, cases of child molesting or rape are dealt with by indirection or euphemism, with references to questions of "moral fitness" or accusations of "boundary violations." For years, anonymous complaints of abuse were ignored and priests were given the benefit of every doubt.
The personnel files, some of which date from the 1930s, were produced as part of settlement talks with lawyers for 560 accusers in a civil suit here. The church provided them to The New York Times in advance of their public release. The archdiocese is releasing them in part to make good on a promise to parishioners to come clean about the church's actions in the scandal, church officials said. It also hopes that the release will spur settlement talks, which appear to have stalled in recent months.
Raymond Boucher, lead lawyer for those suing the church, said the versions of the files released by the church were cleansed of much of the damaging details of the accusations and the church's response. He said their release was chiefly a public relations move by the church as both sides prepare for trial.
"Unfortunately, these files do not contain the full story of the participation by the church in the manipulation and movement of these priests," Boucher said. "The full files would show how deep and pervasive this problem was and how much the church put its own interests ahead of those of the children and others who were molested by the priests. That is a broader and deeper story."
The files reveal that only recently did the church come to grips with the abusive and criminal behavior in its ranks and act aggressively to contain it.
The Los Angeles cases are in many ways typical of the sexual abuse claims that have stained the church in recent years. The behavior of priests in Southern California was no worse than that seen elsewhere, and the response of senior church officials was generally no better. But the sheer scope of the claims and the potential for a huge payout to victims sets Los Angeles apart from archdioceses in other major cities.
Perhaps the most egregious case here concerns Father Michael Baker, who voluntarily revealed in 1986 to Mahony a sexual relationship with two young boys from 1978 to 1985. Mahony did not report the abuse to the police, but rather sent Baker for counseling and prohibited him from having any close contact with minors, the documents show. But he was soon assigned to parishes where he found it easy to prey on young boys again. After several more unsuccessful attempts at therapy, Baker was finally removed from the priesthood in 2000, but only after it was learned that he had molested as many as 10 victims over the previous 20 years.
There are many cases in which the accusations were not made until years after the alleged incidents and some in which early complaints were not deemed credible. But in all, the files paint a portrait of an institution in denial about what now looks like widespread sexual misconduct.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles is the largest Roman Catholic diocese in the United States, serving nearly five million Catholics. The size of the priestly abuse problem here rivals that in Boston, where more than 500 clergy were accused of abusing children over the past 60 years and where the church paid $85 million in 2003 to settle civil claims against it.
Since then, the stakes in the church scandal have risen. Late last year, the Diocese of Orange, in Orange County, paid $100 million to settle 85 cases.
Lawyers involved in negotiations in Los Angeles said that if an overall settlement was reached between the 560 plaintiffs and the church, the payout would be significantly higher than in Boston or Orange County, perhaps exceeding $500 million. The cost of litigating each case individually could rise far beyond that.
Since 1985, the archdiocese has paid $10 million to settle a handful of child molesting cases.
The archdiocese received relatively few complaints of sexual abuse by priests, no more than a couple of dozen a year, until 2002, when the church scandal exploded with news reports from Boston. Since then, the Los Angeles archdiocese has received hundreds of complaints against more than 250 priests and other church workers, of whom roughly half are now included in settlement talks.
The documents will be posted this week on the Web site of the archdiocese at www.la-archdiocese.org or on a site kept by the church's lawyers at www.la-clergycases.com, said J. Michael Hennigan, lead lawyer for the archdiocese.