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mahony & the invisible video, again

By Diogenes (articles ) | Mar 25, 2007

I'd like to focus more closely on the curious case of Cardinal Mahony's two accounts (or, if you prefer, Cardinal Mahony's account in contrast with his lawyers' account) of the mystery video found in the room of child-abuser Fr. Lynn Caffoe at the rectory of St. Bede's Church in La Canada, California.

The controversy surrounds two irreconcilable descriptions of the video: the first submitted by Cardinal Mahony to Cardinal Ratzinger and the CDF at an unspecified date (between June 1992 when the video turned up, and April 2005 when Ratzinger became Pope); the second prepared as a proffer by the Archdiocese's attorneys, reviewed by two judges who were to check the accuracy of the proffers against the files of which they were summaries, and published in October 2005.

All that has become public of the first description is in the following paragraph from the LA Times story:

In a letter to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before Ratzinger became pope in April 2005, Mahony said Caffoe had videotaped "partially naked" boys in a state of sexual arousal. The tape was "objective verification that criminal behavior did occur," Mahony wrote.

The later, lawyer-written description here follows in its entirety (p. 18 of the October 2005 document).

6/10/92: Two priests at St. Bede's report finding an undated videotape in Fr. Caffoe's room of improper behavior with several high school boys. No sexual activity. The boys are fully clothed.

The Archdiocese has tried to dismiss the discrepancy 1) by stating the different descriptions were penned for different purposes, and 2) by suggesting that they are descriptions of two different things: the lawyers' account summarizing not the video but a memo concerning the video, and the Cardinal's account based on -- well, we're not told what. The Archdiocese does not tell us that the Cardinal did see the video and does not tell us that the lawyers didn't see it. Since both facts are easily ascertained by asking the parties involved, since both facts are eminently relevant to the dispute, since both facts are cagily omitted from the lawyer-crafted "explanation," and since finally the memo in question obviously still exists and could effortlessly be published to allay our misgivings -- we are justified in presuming that at least one of the accounts was deliberately falsified, and can ask who stands to gain what in either case.

The more obvious place to suspect tampering is in the later ("no sexual activity") account. Since the Archdiocese is being sued by Caffoe's victims for its failure to protect them from a known predator, the less predatory Caffoe's reported behavior appears, the stronger the Archdiocese's position, and its interest in a non-predatory Caffoe provides a motive for bending the facts in that direction. Once more, the explanation offered by the Archdiocese is so feeble that it fuels rather than allays suspicion:

The lawyers who prepared the Caffoe proffer read a memo from Caffoe's personnel file describing a viewing of a videotape, the whereabouts of which had been unknown since 1992. The lawyers understood the description in the memo to involve no touching and they and the judges who reviewed the memo concluded that it therefore involved no sexual activity. And, although some of the boys on the tape were reported to have removed their shirts, none had removed their pants, or exposed themselves in any way, and they were thus described in the proffer as having been fully clothed.

Obvious questions: if the boys could reasonably be described as fully clothed, and there was no discernible sexual activity, why did Caffoe's fellow priests send off the video in the first place? What did the "improper behavior" consist in? Who authored the memo? Who was at the "viewing"? Also relevant: what attempts have been made to identify, contact, and elicit further information from the boys shown in the video?

There's still something puzzling here. Caffoe left the parish at which the video was made in 1986 (four months after a nun reported a "boundary violation"); the video wasn't brought to the Archdiocese's notice -- at least so we're told -- until June 1992, a year after Caffoe had entered the St. Luke Institute for treatment, and three months after he had been discharged. He was put on inactive leave in July of '92. That's to say, while the video may give objective proof of Caffoe's villainy, it says nothing in itself about the Archdiocese's knowledge of his villainy. Thus it's hard to see what the Archdiocese stood to gain by laundering the description of a video that it wasn't aware of until after it had already yanked Caffoe from ministry -- unless, of course, the video corroborates otherwise unverifiable information about Caffoe of which the Archdiocese did have prior knowledge and on which it failed to act.

We also have to make sense of the fact that two judges (based on who knows what degree of scrutiny of the memo) were prepared to sign off on the Archdiocese's description. This obliges us to consider the alternative possibility, viz., that the blander "no sexual activity" description is the true one, and that Cardinal Mahony falsified the account he submitted to the CDF by exaggerating the degree of sexual mischief portrayed in the video.

What motive could the Cardinal have for doing so? Convenience. Caffoe was already through with ministry by the time Mahony sent the letter, and was a legal and financial liability to the Archdiocese. If the activity actually visible on the video was equivocal, a cynical pragmatist may have reasoned: "I don't want this case bogged down in a Vatican office for ten years because of insufficiently damning evidence. No one who reads my letter is likely to see the video anyway. Let me fiddle with the details so that not even a hair-splitting Vatican canonist can fail to find an open-and-shut case. We'll say the boys were 'partially naked'; we'll get the CDF's attention with a line about sexual arousal; we'll pretend we regret we can't sent the video itself while making plain that anyone who viewed it would agree it showed 'objective verification that criminal behavior did occur.'"

Are there any considerations in favor of this hypothesis? On one hand, it explains the Archdiocese's reticence about a video that otherwise is hard to see as damaging to its interests. On the other, it fits very well with the Archdiocese's own explanation of the discrepancy: Mahony's version was purposely phrased "more aggressively" in order to get Caffoe tossed out.

The other document in question is Cardinal Mahony's letter to the Vatican explaining why the Pope should revoke Lynn Caffoe's priesthood. This document, drafted for the purpose of fulfilling Church law requirements for invoking this penalty, described the same content of the videotape more aggressively. Removed shirts were described as "partial nudity," and suggestive sexual comments were described as "criminal" (a "delict") in the context of Church law.

And note what the Archdiocese, in protesting the LA Times article, oddly but unambiguously calls "the goal":

The Los Angeles Times' attempt to harmonize two documents with completely different purposes is not only misleading, it is inconsequential to the goal: removing clergy at once who are credibly accused of sexual misconduct involving minors.

This second possibility points to a ruthless pursuit of self-interest more chilling than the first. Think how a priest would feel, knowing or suspecting that his superior was prepared, when circumstances made it expedient, to falsify testimony against him and to communicate the same to the Holy See -- especially a superior willing to fight his way to the Supreme Court in order to restrict access to the pertinent files.

Both alternatives here outlined, it goes without saying, are unsavory. Could there be an innocent, and plausible, third possibility? I can't imagine what it might be, but if it exists it will be recoverable from examination of the memo, the video itself, and the testimony of the taped individuals. As long as these materials are withheld, and as long as the Cardinal's reputation for candor remains what it is, that happy third possibility will elude us, and we'll remain stuck with two: No-sexual-activity was a lie, or partially-naked-sexual-arousal was a lie.

My lords spiritual, which one do you want us to believe?

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  • Posted by: - Mar. 25, 2007 3:38 PM ET USA

    Suggestion to high school English, philosophy and ethics teachers: next time you want to explain to a class what the phrase, "horns of a dilemma" means, try this one. Or maybe it would be better if you didn't, overall.

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