Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The Wages of Sin

by George Neumayr


In the following article, Catholic World Report editor George Neumayr discusses the precarious future of Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, who in July 2007 agreed to the largest abuse settlement in the history of the Catholic Church in America. The author provides an analysis of the case against Mahony and discusses some of the cardinal's actions leading up to the charges brought against him.

Larger Work

The Catholic World Report


24 – 26

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, October 2007

In 1998, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony spent four hours testifying in a civil case involving Oliver O'Grady, a priest accused of molesting two brothers. Cardinal Mahony, who served as bishop of the Diocese of Stockton (1980-1985) before his move to Los Angeles, had transferred O'Grady to a new assignment long after learning of accusations of abuse against him.

Mahony's testimony on the stand did not go well. The jury in the case awarded the brothers $30 million (it was later reduced). One juror, explaining the enormous judgment, said that he had "found Mahony to be utterly unbelievable." Another juror told the press, "I didn't believe Mahony . . . I think it is pretty obvious that none of us [jurors] did."

In July of this year, Cardinal Mahony faced the prospect of questioning in another civil trial, one that threatened to detail extensively his role in protecting priests accused of abuse in the Los Angeles archdiocese. But appearing on the stand was not an experience Cardinal Mahony wanted to repeat. On the eve of the trial's start, in which he was scheduled as the first witness, he chose to settle the case.

He announced that the archdiocese of Los Angeles would pay 508 plaintiffs $660 million — the largest abuse settlement in the history of the Catholic Church in America. The archdiocese, he said, will pay at least $250 million of it while insurance companies and religious orders implicated in the abuse are expected to cover the rest. This financial shock follows last year's $114-million-dollar settlement accepted by Cardinal Mahony that covered 86 other cases.

To pay the settlements, the Los Angeles archdiocese will have to sell off multiple properties (50 have been reported so far), including the chancery building. According to press reports, Cardinal Mahony has pledged not to close any parishes or schools, intending to rely instead on valuable properties his predecessors, such as Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, purchased in anticipation of future archdiocesan growth.

The Credibility Problem

The settlement has left many Southern California Catholics upset if not eager to see the era of Cardinal Mahony come to a close.

"Everyone feels that he gave away the store" in order to avoid testifying, says a Los Angeles diocesan priest to CWR. Asked by CWR if his parishioners think Cardinal Mahony should resign, this priest says: "Virtually all of them. They don't understand why somebody who has behaved so incompetently could keep his job. No CEO would be able to keep his job after losing a quarter of a billion."

While the cardinal still has a few defenders — such as Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, who told the Los Angeles Times that he believes the settlement will free the cardinal up to resume his social justice activism and predicts the scandal will "disappear" — support for him is waning. One anonymous Los Angeles priest quoted in the Los Angeles Times says the cardinal's credibility is now nil: "How can he possibly talk about justice when he pays huge settlements to cover up for himself?"

Nevertheless, Cardinal Mahony, 71, isn't likely to resign without substantial pressure from the Vatican. Despite telling the Los Angeles Times that he encouraged the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston — a stance many found astounding given his own precarious position — he has rejected calls for his resignation.

After the settlement in July, he told the Los Angeles Daily News — in a conversation he later protested was off the record — that his "apology" to the victims represented an institutional gesture more than a personal one:

I found in visiting with victims that unless you accepted responsibility in the name of the Church for what happened to them, you cannot authentically offer them an apology . . . as I met with many victims, most of whose cases, practically all, took place long before I came here . . .

In that same interview, he presented the abuse scandal as essentially a pre-Vatican II problem: "In our case, many of the priests came out of the 'good old days' — Latin-only, cassocks-only . . . Most of our cases did not come out of post-Vatican II, they came out of pre-Vatican II."

Since the abuse scandal erupted in the media in 2002, Mahony has consistently tried to minimize his responsibility for it, exposing the Church in Los Angeles to a steady stream of ridicule from national media and local radio talk show hosts. Among his more brazen strategies to deflect attention has been his decision to use Church funds to hire a public relations firm, Sitrick and Company, to burnish his image as a "reformer."

Towards this end, he has held a series of publicized meetings with victims, which have left them decidedly unimpressed. One victim informed the Los Angeles Times that the cardinal stunned her by saying — after she told him that the trauma had caused her to lose faith in Catholicism — that the "Catholic church is not the only church."

The Facts Belie the Spin

The facts that have emerged from the Los Angeles abuse cases reveal this calculated public relations campaign as almost surreal in its deception. The press has reported that in at least 16 cases, many of the details of which would have come out more starkly than before in the civil trial, Mahony kept priests accused of molestation in ministry for years. In an interview with the National Catholic Reporter, psychotherapist Richard Sipe called the Los Angeles archdiocese under Mahony one of the "worst dioceses I've ever seen. In 1991, 56 of the 710 archdiocesan priests active in the Los Angeles archdiocese were sexual abusers in ministry at that time."

Until the abuse scandal enveloped the Church, Mahony had planned to make an accused molester, Fr. Carl Sutphin (one of his classmates from St. John's Seminary), an associate pastor of Los Angeles' new cathedral. Cardinal Mahony had brought Sutphin with him from the old cathedral, St. Vibiana's.

"I can't believe a cardinal keeps a pedophile on staff," Andrew Cicchillo, who says Sutphin abused him, said to the press in 2002. Asked by the press why he would share living quarters over a period of seven years with a priest accused of abuse, Cardinal Mahony implausibly cast the arrangement as a form of supervision.

After Cardinal Mahony reluctantly fired Sutphin and expelled him from the priesthood, prosecutors, wary of Mahony's practice of harboring bad priests, considered Sutphin a "flight risk." At Sutphin's bail hearing, prosecutors asked the judge to set bail at $500,000. "Let me make sure I understand what you're saying . . . You're suggesting that the Catholic Church would help him flee?" said Judge James Cloninger, as reported in the Ventura County Star. "Yes, that is what I'm suggesting," responded Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Douglas Ridley.

Cardinal Mahony's inner circle included several accused pedophiles. One of them, Michael Baker, told the press that, in a panic-stricken state, he once begged the cardinal to call the police on him, but the cardinal refused. Baker says that after he offered to turn himself in, one of Cardinal Mahony's lawyers said, "Should we call the police now?" To which the cardinal responded: "No, no, no."

Over the next 14 years, Cardinal Mahony assigned Baker to several parishes near schools and children. Ron Russell, writing in the New Times in 2002, reported: "Sources say Baker and Mahony were especially close, and that Baker was among an elite number of prelates privileged to spend weekends with the cardinal at his cabin near Yosemite National Park. Mahony finally dismissed Baker two years ago and kept it quiet by imposing a 'confidentiality agreement' on the victims' families and their lawyers after paying them $1.3 million in church funds."

Cardinal Mahony has said that in the 1990s he took aggressive steps to address the problem of child molestation. But it has come out that one of the priests he selected to review many of the abuse cases, Monsigor Richard Loomis (who served as vicar of clergy until 2000), has himself been accused of it. At first, Cardinal Mahony assured Loomis' parish, Sts. Felicitas and Perpetua parish in San Marino, that there "was no credible evidence of misconduct" and that he had "complete confidence" in him. But then more accusations came and Loomis was suspended.

Had the July trial gone forward, Cardinal Mahony would have been forced to explain his decisions in these cases. Some of these decisions appear grimly farcical, as, for example, Mahony's appearance in 2000 at a luncheon to honor Fr. Michael Wempe. After learning of allegations of abuse against Wempe as far back as 1988, Mahony assigned him to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center without bothering to tell hospital officials about his past. In the embarrassing aftermath, Cardinal Mahony said that he didn't know Cedars-Sinai had a pediatric unit.

Cardinal Mahony's fears of testifying also extended to likely questions about his role in letting accused priests flee the country. During his tenure, at least five priests who faced accusations of abusing minors have escaped prosecutors by leaving the country. Perhaps the most prominent and illustrative of these cases involves Father Santiago Tamayo, a priest from the Philippines accused of abusing an underage girl while serving in the Los Angeles archdiocese.

A letter written by one of Cardinal Mahony's aides (which was copied to him) instructed Tamayo that "it is not advisable that you return at all to the United States," since it "can only open old wounds and further hurt anyone concerned, including the archdiocese." After Tamayo returned anyway, he received another chancery letter urging him to "return to the Philippines promptly" and assurance that he would continue to receive from the archdiocese a monthly stipend.

It Isn't Over Yet

Commenting on Cardinal Law, Cardinal Mahony said that "he would find it difficult to walk down an aisle in church if he had been guilty of gross negligence," according to the Los Angeles Times. Yet many observers, on both the Catholic left and right, have concluded that Mahony's conduct has been no less negligent than Law's.

Leon Panetta, a former aide to Bill Clinton who sat on the American bishops' watchdog National Review Board, has said that Cardinal Mahony's stonewalling and intensely legalistic approach to the abuse scandal "has done tremendous damage to his reputation and the archdiocese." He recalled to the Associated Press a meeting of the National Review Board at which Cardinal Mahony appeared. "There were more lawyers in the room than I've ever seen," he said.

Former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, who served as the chairman of the National Review Board (until Cardinal Mahony, it was widely reported by the press, led a campaign to oust him), has likened the cardinal's maneuvering to "La Cosa Nostra."

If there is a difference between Law and Mahony, it is this: the Los Angeles cardinal remains in legal jeopardy. Steve Cooley, Los Angeles' District Attorney, continues to investigate whether or not Mahony committed criminal acts of obstruction of justice.

In an unusually blunt statement from a prosecutor (given that he has yet to bring charges), Cooley said in July: "Cardinal Mahony and many others are going to have to live with their conscience and live with their incredible moral failure to the people of Los Angeles."

Cooley has not ruled out charges, suggesting that the confidential personnel records which Cardinal Mahony fought for four and a half years to keep sealed could result in new scrutiny. As part of July's settlement, a retired judge now has the authority to examine those personnel files and release them at his discretion.

Cooley has told the Los Angeles Times that he had planned to pursue "the quote unquote higher-ups" under a California state law that permitted prosecution in cases of abuse predating 1988. But he lamented that a 2003 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck that California law down as unconstitutional, hampered his investigation. "We had 30 cases in the pipeline," he said. Under current California law, Cooley would have to find evidence of obstruction of justice after 2003 in order to bring charges against archdiocesan officials.

Meanwhile, plaintiffs' attorneys describe the personnel records as a ticking public relations time bomb under the cardinal, containing the power to do to him what a similar release of files in Boston did to Cardinal Law.

"There will be a volcanic reaction by the public and the media," said plaintiffs' attorney John Manly in July. A CWR source, who has also seen the files, agrees: "This is really bad stuff. Mahony was excessively negligent. I can't see how he survives."

George Neumayr is editor of Catholic World Report.

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