It's Time for Cardinal Mahony to Deliver on Promise of Openness

Los Angeles Times [Los Angeles CA]
Downloaded March 14, 2003

I put in a call to Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony's office Thursday, trying to find out how he's holding up. It has to be tough physically and emotionally, finding the moral justification to turn authorities away in sex-abuse investigations.

Do you lie awake at night?

Do you pace the halls?

Do you kneel in the new cathedral and pray that no more children get molested while you're sitting on a pile of documents the district attorney is begging for?

It has to be even tougher to stand your ground, ever-defiant, when the results of full cooperation are on display just across the Orange County line.

The arrest Thursday of a priest I first wrote about in 2001 might not have happened without the help of the Diocese of Orange, which threw open its doors and let prosecutors dig around in all the dark corners.

They've been extremely cooperative, said a representative for the Orange County district attorney's office.

As a result, Father John Lenihan -- actually he's no longer a priest, having been officially dumped by the pope himself -- has been charged with 10 counts of felony sexual assault on a minor.

I never thought this day would come, Lenihan's alleged victim told me Thursday.

She was the recipient of a $1.2-million civil settlement last year, having claimed that Lenihan got her pregnant when she was 16 and then paid for her abortion. She filed the suit after reading my columns on the prolific Lenihan, in which he told me details of his abuse of another teenager, as well as his multiple affairs with women parishioners.

It's fair to argue that in Lenihan's case and others, the Orange diocese waited too many years to do the right thing. But it finally woke up a couple of years ago in the face of the growing national scandal, and Bishop Tod D. Brown promised full cooperation in all sex-abuse investigations.

One of the documents the diocese coughed up in the Lenihan case was a March 28, 2002, letter he sent to Pope John Paul II, asking to be officially dismissed as a priest.

I was totally celibate until 1978, he wrote, when I became involved with a teenager and that was followed by a sexual relationship with another teen shortly afterward.

When I asked diocese spokesperson Maria Schinderle about cooperating with authorities in this case, she said:

We feel that it is part and parcel of ... Brown's promise of a safe environment for youth and young people in the diocese.

As I recall, Cardinal Mahony made a similar vow back in the days when he was positioning himself as the national conscience of church reform. Last May, feeling the heat of a grand jury investigation, Mahony trumpeted his commitment to truth and justice:

We want every single thing to be out, open and dealt with, period.

And yet here we are 10 months later, with prosecutors and legislators teaming up in a frantic effort to pry documents loose from Mahony, who grows ever more stubborn.

If his eminence doesn't hand over the goods, which include his private correspondence with suspected priests, the statute of limitations will run out. That means that about a dozen priests and former clerics, suspected in 50 or more cases of alleged sexual abuse of minors, could be off the hook within three months.

It would be sort of like an early Christmas gift from the cardinal -- Get Out of Jail Free cards for suspected molesters.

And that could be just the beginning. A few dozen more priests and clerics could benefit down the road if Mahony continues slamming the door in the face of investigators.

Two pieces of legislation are in the works to extend the statute of limitations, and a Los Angeles County Superior Court hearing on the records is scheduled for April. But there's no telling how any of that will turn out, especially given the cardinal's network of friends in high places.

The archdiocese claims it has turned over plenty of documents, but has a constitutional right to withhold communications between the cardinal and suspected priests.

Prelate privilege is the term they're using. I don't recall any mention of prelate privilege when Mahony said he wanted every single thing to be out, open and dealt with, period.

Divulging these communications, the archdiocese now argues, would infringe on the church's free exercise of religion.

This could be their best work yet.

Helping to prosecute molesters and protect children could infringe on the free exercise of religion?

In the name of the father, son, and holy ghost, what kind of twisted minds are these?

It's unconscionable, says Mary Grant, who was one of Lenihan's teenage victims in the 1970s. Back then, she ran into the same kind of stonewalling tactics the archdiocese is using now, and she's had to wait a quarter of a century to see criminal action against her abuser.

Mahony continues to hide behind religion as if it's a shield, Grant said, as if he should not be held accountable for crimes committed in his church.

As I said, I called the cardinal, but he didn't call back. Having to answer my questions might infringe on his free exercise of religion.

The nights must be long up there at the Rog Mahal.

Pray for him, please.

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