LOS ANGELES — The church files are filled with outrage, pain and confusion. There are handwritten notes from distraught mothers, accounts of furious phone calls from brothers and perplexed inquiries from the police following up on allegations of priests sexually abusing children. Over four decades, particularly under Cardinal Roger Mahony, parishioners in the nation’s largest Roman Catholic archdiocese repeatedly tried to alert church authorities about abusive priests in their midst, trusting that the church would respond appropriately.
But the internal personnel files on 124 priests released by the archdiocese under court order on Thursday reveal a very different response: how church officials initially disbelieved them and grew increasingly alarmed over the years, only as multiple victims of the same priest came forward and reported similar experiences. Even then, in some cases, priests were shuttled out of state or out of the country to avoid criminal investigations.
A sampling of the 12,000 pages suggests that Mahony and other top church officials dealt with the accusations of abuse regularly and intimately throughout the last several decades. It often took years to even reach the realization that a priest could no longer simply be sent to a rehabilitation center and instead must be removed from ministry or even defrocked.
In one case, the Rev. Jose Ugarte was accused by a physician of having drugged and raped a young boy in a hotel in Ensenada, Calif., and of taking boys every weekend to a cabin in Big Bear. But rather than turn Ugarte over to the authorities, Mahony decided to send him back to Spain, made him sign a document promising not to return to the United States without permission for seven years, not to celebrate Mass in public and to seek employment in “a secular occupation in order to become self-supporting."
The current archbishop, Jose Gomez, who succeeded Mahony when he retired two years ago, took the unusual if not unprecedented step Thursday night of censuring his predecessor, calling the documents he released late Thursday “brutal and painful reading" and announcing that he was removing him from administrative and public duties. He also accepted the resignation of one of his auxiliary bishops, Thomas Curry.
But in an extraordinary public confrontation between bishops, Mahony adamantly defended himself Friday, posting on his blog a letter he had sent to Gomez. The cardinal insisted that his approach to sexual abuse evolved as he learned more over the years, and that his archdiocese had been in the forefront of reforms to prevent abuse and respond to victims.
Mahony implied that his successor’s censure of him was unexpected and unwarranted: “Not once over these past years did you ever raise any questions about our policies, practices or procedures in dealing with the problem of clergy sexual misconduct involving minors."
Church experts agreed that it was the first time a bishop has publicly condemned another bishop’s failures in the abuse scandal, which has occupied the American bishops for nearly three decades. They also said Gomez had gone as far as he could under the church’s canon laws to discipline Mahony. He could not, they said, take away his authority to celebrate Mass, but he did order him not to preside at confirmations, a ceremonial role that often keeps retired archbishops in the public eye.
The Los Angeles church files are not unlike other documents unearthed in the church’s long-running abuse scandal in the United States, but it appears to be the largest cache.
In 1977, the mother of a 10-year-old boy wrote to Monsignor John Rawden saying that George Miller, then a priest at parish in Pacoima, had taken her son on a fishing trip and molested him. The accusation was noted in Miller’s files, but he denied the charges and was presumed to be innocent. Then in 1989 another pastor complained that Miller violated church policy by repeatedly having young boys in his room in the rectory and traveling with them.
Miller was sent to a treatment center run by Catholic therapists in St. Louis in 1996. When he was scheduled to be released a year later, Monsignor Richard Loomis — who would eventually face his own allegations of sexual abuse — wrote Miller a letter saying that the “recent changes in the child abuse reporting law and the statute of limitations in California have changed the way we have to look at many things in our personnel policies." Loomis went on to say that he could not return to the ministry in Los Angeles.
But two months later, in May 1997, Loomis wrote to Mahony suggesting that Miller could seek to serve as a priest in Mexico through a “benevolent bishop" or return to California and “begin a secular life," and live “somewhere that would minimize potential contact with those involved in his situation."
After leaving St. Louis, Miller returned to California and by 2004 was under investigation by the police.
In a letter in 2004 to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict XVI — Mahony wrote: “The story of Father Miller is a very sad one. Clearly he never should have been ordained. Had the kinds of screenings we used now been employed in the 1950s, he would have never been admitted to the seminary."
The documents also hint at the disillusionment on the part of church officials as they eventually realized that priests who had denied any allegations of abuse were eventually revealed as repeat violators.
In the case of Carlos Rodriguez, then a priest downtown, Los Angeles Police Department investigators called church officials to ask about a report that the priest took two teenage boys to the Grand Canyon and fondled one boy’s groin. According to the files, Curry had already written to Mahony about the allegation. The police said that when they called the church to speak with Rodriguez, the person who answered the phone responded by saying, “Oh no, they reported it," referring to the boy’s family.
In 2004, Rodriguez was sentenced to eight years in prison for molesting two brothers in the early 1990s, years after he was transferred because of the earlier allegations.
Many of the victims said the release of the files felt like a vindication of sorts because they showed repeated abuse by the priests that church officials had often denied.
“I wasn’t lying, I wasn’t embellishing, I wasn’t making it up," said Esther Miller, 54, a mother of two who said she was abused by Michael Nocita, a priest, when she was in high school. “It shows the pattern of complicity. It shows the cover-up."
Mahony, who served from 1985 until 2011, when he reached mandatory retirement, has faced calls for his defrocking over his handling of the abuse cases for years. But the cardinal, a vocal champion of immigrant rights, remained hugely popular with Latinos here, who make up 40 percent of the 4 million parishioners in the archdiocese.
The church had fought for years to keep the documents secret, and until this week it argued that the names of top church officials should be kept private. But on Thursday, Judge Emilie Elias rejected the church’s requests to redact the names of officials before releasing the files. The diocese released the files, with the names of victims and many other church officials removed, less than an hour later.
The trove of documents suggests that church officials routinely sent priests accused of abuse out of state and in some cases out of the country to avoid the potential investigations from law enforcement.
Mahony is a member of three Vatican departments, including the Holy See’s all-important economic affairs office, and he remains a member of the College of Cardinals. At 76, he is still eligible to vote in a conclave to elect a new pope.
The Vatican’s former sex crimes prosecutor, Bishop Charles Scicluna, has said canon law provides for sanctioning bishops who show “malicious or fraudulent negligence" in their work, but such laws have never been applied in the case of bishops who covered up sex abuse cases.