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New Documents Show Catholic Leaders in Los Angeles Protected Abusive Priests

February 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles was forced to release 12,000 pages of documents showing that dozens of priests were accused of molesting children over several decades. Ray Suarez examines this new revelation about the church's handling of abuse claims with Ray Boucher, lead attorney representing the victims.
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RAY SUAREZ: We turn to the sexual abuse scandal that is shaking up the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese.

Last week, the diocese was forced to release 12,000 pages of documents about dozens of priests who are accused of molesting children, allegations that date back several decades. That led to a rare public rebuke of a top church official.

It began with a sweeping settlement involving more than 500 people in 2007. They said they’d been sexually abused by priests, and they won $660 million dollars.

Raymond Boucher was lead attorney for the plaintiffs.

RAY BOUCHER, Attorney for Victims: Far more important than the money, though, is a critical term of this settlement provides for transparency, for sunshine, and for the release of the confidential files and personnel records of the priests that were involved in molesting so many children over the last five or so decades.

RAY SUAREZ: Lengthy court battles kept those files and records sealed for five more years. But some were finally made public last month under a court order and more were released last week.

The vast document dump included letters to church officials from parents who claimed their child had been abused, checks from the archdiocese as payment for therapy sessions for priests, and even a letter to Pope John Paul III from one victim. The reams of material detailed that then-Archbishop Roger Mahony went to great lengths to shield priests accused of abuse.

In one case, diocesan officials wrote to Mahony that a priest who acknowledged abusing young boys should be reassigned, instead of getting therapy. “If he were to mention his problem with child abuse,” the letter said, “it would put the therapist in the position of having to report him. He cannot mention his past problem.”

In a handwritten note, Mahony agreed, saying: “Sounds good. Please proceed.”

Some of the victims, including Manuel Vega, said the cover-up is now clear for all to see.

MANUEL VEGA, Church Abuse Victim: There’s smells, there’s touches, there’s feelings. You have to put yourself into that moment to understand what the Catholic Church is protecting. This is what Cardinal Mahony, this is what vicars of clergy, nuns, attorneys, this is what they all got together and spoke about and in secret made these deals to protect these priests.

RAY SUAREZ: Mahony retired in 2011, to be succeeded by Archbishop Jose Gomez. In a statement last week, Gomez said: “The behavior described in these files is terribly sad and evil. There is no excuse, no explaining away what happened to these children.”

Cardinal Mahony has now been stripped of all administrative duties. But he is still allowed to celebrate the sacraments and to continue with other duties for the Vatican. And last Friday, he posted a defiant response to Archbishop Gomez on his personal blog. It read in part: “Not once over these past years did you ever raise any questions about our policies, practices, or procedures. I handed over to you an archdiocese that was second to none in protecting children and youth.”

In the meantime, some abuse victims say some files still have not been released, but the archdiocese says it will comply fully with the court-ordered deadline, February 22.

We take a close look at the documents and what they reveal about the church’s handling of abuse claims with Ray Boucher, the lead attorney representing victims in the cases that lead to the files release. We asked the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to join our conversation, but they were not available.

Mr. Boucher, now five-and-a-half years or so since the settlement, the documents are finally out. Did they provide any missing pieces of the puzzle? Did they tell you things you didn’t already know?

RAY BOUCHER: Well, they certainly tell us in greater detail the horrific story of abuse and cover-up that we long suspected and understood existed. They just simply confirmed it, but confirmed it in a depth that I don’t think anybody could have ever understood, fully comprehended.

RAY SUAREZ: So, when you say confirmed it, does this directly link abuse claims to the highest members of it the archdiocesan hierarchy and their full knowledge that there were priests who were accused who were then not removed from their job?

RAY BOUCHER: Without question.

These documents and files that go back five decades confirm that, in fact, the Vatican, the cardinals, the vicars of clergy here in Los Angeles were all intimately involved with the cover-up, providing sanctuary and immunity to priests and shifting them from parish to parish or state to state and sometimes country to country in order to protect them from being criminally prosecuted and in order to protect the image of the church.

RAY SUAREZ: As diocese after diocese has faced this problem, the question gets asked, but I think it bears asking again. If someone is aware that there’s an accusation of a serious crime or is aware that a crime has been committed, does the law compel them to report it?

RAY BOUCHER: Without question, there’s an absolute obligation to report crimes of this nature.

We’re talking about rape and sodomy and sexual abuse at the worst levels. And there was absolutely always in my mind an obligation to report this. And the failure to do so makes you an aider and abetter, a co-conspirator, somebody that’s covering up criminal conduct and behavior that should be prosecuted.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, apart from an obligation, which we can talk further about, I guess, is it legally required? Is not reporting a crime that you’re aware of — in this case, a felony — a crime itself?

RAY BOUCHER: Well, for those people that were mandatory reporters — and for many years, the leadership of the archdiocese in California were mandatory reporters — it absolutely would have been a crime to fail to report that.

RAY SUAREZ: So, after these documents have been made public, are there still people serving in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles who may be open to prosecution for their behavior during the years in question?

RAY BOUCHER: Well, I know that the district attorney’s office and the police here in Los Angeles are reviewing and combing through the files to determine whether there were, in fact, activities or conduct that took place during a period of time when the statute of limitations hasn’t run.

Unfortunately, many of these crimes occurred in — a decade or so ago, and so the statute of limitations has likely run on virtually all, if not all of them.

RAY SUAREZ: Can you give us some examples of individual priests or cases where the kind of behavior that’s been alleged over a long period of time that in many cases the church denied was, in fact, going on?

RAY BOUCHER: Sure.

Fr. Miller, who served in various parishes throughout Los Angeles, in the ’70s, there were complaints of sexual abuse relating to him. He admitted to the fact that he was sexually abusing children. He was sent for treatment at one of the treatment facilities of the Catholic Church, and yet put back in the ministry and continued to sexually abuse again.

You have Fr. Cafoe, who early on, there were reports that children were being abused or suspected of being abused by him, and yet no action was taken, other than, again, to send him to treatment and then bring him back. Fr. Rodrigue in Ventura, who went on to sexually abuse a whole family of young men after the reports from the psychiatrists said very clearly he should never be around children, and yet we have pictures of him saying children’s-only Christmas mass.

RAY SUAREZ: And the documents indicate this is done — this was done with the approval of fairly senior-ranking members in the archdiocese?

RAY BOUCHER: Certainly with the knowledge and understanding of the vicars of clergy and in most cases the cardinal himself.

RAY SUAREZ: Today, do you feel that you know everything you need to know about what went on over the last 30 years, or do you think there are cases that are still to come to light?

RAY BOUCHER: Oh, there’s no question that there are a number of cases that have not come forward. There’s thousands of victims that continue to suffer in silence that were abused by priests in Los Angeles.

We know there are other priests whose names have not come out because there were no allegations brought forth during the opening of the statute of limitations that resulted in the release of these documents. But they’re still out there.

Clearly, this is an important and substantive glimpse into a very deep and dark and ongoing problem within the Catholic Church and, frankly, in society itself. But it’s simply a glimpse. It’s by no stretch of the imagination the full picture.

RAY SUAREZ: Attorney Ray Boucher, thanks for joining us.

RAY BOUCHER: Thank you very much.

RAY SUAREZ: You can read the recently released documents for yourself. Find a link on our website.