Wednesday, October 12, 2005

 

Los Angeles Files Recount Decades of Priests' Abuse


Again, thanks to Jan:

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 11 - The confidential personnel files of 126 clergymen in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles accused of sexual misconduct with children provide a numbing chronicle of 75 years of the church's shame, revealing case after case in which the church was warned of abuse but failed to protect its parishioners.

In some cases, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and his predecessors quietly shuffled the priests off to counseling and then to new assignments. In others, parents were offered counseling for their children and were urged to remain silent.

Throughout the files, cases of child molesting or rape are dealt with by indirection or euphemism, with references to questions of "moral fitness" or accusations of "boundary violations." For years, anonymous complaints of abuse were ignored and priests were given the benefit of every doubt.

The personnel files - some of which date from the 1930's - were produced as part of settlement talks with lawyers for 560 accusers in a civil suit here. The church provided them to The New York Times in advance of their public release in the next few days. The archdiocese is releasing them in part to make good on a promise to parishioners to come clean about the church's actions in the scandal, church officials said. It also hopes that the release will spur settlement talks, which appear to have stalled in recent months.

Raymond P. Boucher, the lead lawyer for those suing the church, said the versions of the files released by the church were cleansed of much of the damaging details of the accusations and the church's response. Their release was chiefly a public relations move by the church as both sides prepared for the first cases to go to trial, Mr. Boucher said.

"Unfortunately, these files do not contain the full story of the participation by the church in the manipulation and movement of these priests," he said. "The full files would show how deep and pervasive this problem was and how much the church put its own interests ahead of those of the children and others who were molested by the priests. That is a broader and deeper story."

The files reveal that only recently did the church come to grips with the abusive and criminal behavior in its ranks and act aggressively to contain it.

The Los Angeles cases are in many ways typical of the sexual abuse claims that have stained the church around the country in recent years. The behavior of priests in Southern California was no worse than that seen elsewhere, and the response of senior church officials was generally no better. But the sheer scope of the claims and the potential for a huge payout to victims sets Los Angeles apart from archdioceses in other major American cities.

Perhaps the most egregious case here concerns the Rev. Michael Baker, who voluntarily revealed in 1986 to then-Archbishop Mahony a sexual relationship with two young boys from 1978 to 1985. Archbishop Mahony did not report the abuse to the police, but rather sent Father Baker for counseling and prohibited him from having any close contact with minors, the documents show. But he was soon assigned to parishes where he found it easy to prey on young boys again. After several more unsuccessful efforts at therapy, Father Baker was finally removed from the priesthood in 2000, but only after it was learned that he had molested as many as 10 victims over the previous 20 years.

There are many cases in which the accusations were not made until years after the alleged incidents and some in which early complaints were not deemed credible. But in all, the files paint a portrait of an institution in denial about what now looks like widespread sexual misconduct.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles is the nation's largest Roman Catholic diocese, covering 8,700 square miles and serving nearly five million Catholics. The size of the priestly abuse problem here rivals that in Boston, where more than 500 members of the clergy were accused of abusing children over the past 60 years and where the church paid $85 million in 2003 to settle civil claims against it.

Since then, the stakes have risen. Late last year, the Diocese of Orange County in California paid $100 million to settle 85 cases.

Lawyers involved in negotiations in Los Angeles said that if an overall settlement was reached between the 560 plaintiffs and the church, the payout would be significantly higher than in Boston or Orange County, perhaps exceeding $500 million. The cost of litigating each case individually could rise far beyond that.

Since 1985, the archdiocese has settled a handful of child molesting cases, paying a total of $10 million.

The archdiocese received relatively few complaints of sexual abuse by priests, no more than a couple dozen a year, until 2002, when the church scandal exploded with news reports from Boston. Since then, the Los Angeles Archdiocese has received hundreds of complaints against more than 250 priests and other church workers, of whom roughly half are now included in settlement talks.

The documents will be posted within a day or two on the archdiocese Web site (www.la-archdiocese.org) or on a site kept by the church's lawyers (www.la-clergycases.com), said J. Michael Hennigan, lead lawyer for the archdiocese.

Mr. Hennigan said the priest files, even though they do not contain a lot of detail about the alleged offenses, would provide the public with a better sense of how the church's response to such charges has evolved.

"We wanted to show what happened, when it happened, what we knew and how we dealt with it," Mr. Hennigan said.

In the case of the Rev. Kevin Barmasse, parents of a young boy wrote to top officials of the archdiocese in 1983 to complain that the priest had abused their son at St. Pancratius Church in Lakewood, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles. Two weeks later, the archdiocese sent Father Barmasse to serve as associate pastor at a parish in the Diocese of Tucson, on the condition that he receive therapy.

Within three years, according to later reports, he made sexual advances toward several male high school students. In 1992, he was stripped of his priestly duties.

Mr. Hennigan said Father Barmasse was one of very few priests that the Los Angeles Archdiocese allowed to move to another parish and continue ministering to children after a credible complaint had been received. He said Cardinal Mahony's inclination to trust in therapy was typical of the church response at the time.

For years, the church treated sexual abuse by members of the clergy as a moral failing and a sin that could be confessed and forgiven. It is only within the last 15 years or so that church officials recognized that pedophiles are by nature repeat offenders and cannot be permitted unsupervised contact with children, Mr. Hennigan said.

He contrasted the behavior of church officials here to that of officials in Boston, who repeatedly shuffled sexual predators from parish to parish with no warning to the public. Such incidents, including the notorious cases of the former priests John J. Geoghan and Paul R. Shanley, led to the reassignment of Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston and forced the closings of dozens of parishes and Catholic schools to pay damage awards.

Despite a number of well-publicized abuse cases here, Cardinal Mahony has remained the leader of the archdiocese and the Los Angeles church appears to be on fairly sound financial footing. Mr. Hennigan said he believed the archdiocese has sufficient resources and insurance to handle settlements without closing schools or selling church property.

Lawyers for the accused priests tried to keep the personnel files secret, saying that their release violates employee record confidentiality laws and that the information in them will prejudice the courts and the public against their clients.

The church, while arguing that some material from the files is protected by priest-penitent or psychotherapist-patient privilege, said it wanted to release the majority of the contents as part of a process of expiation. The material has been in the hands of plaintiffs' lawyers for nearly three years, but courts have ordered it sealed. The church interprets a court ruling last month as allowing it to release edited versions of the personnel files. The files do not include accusers' names.

"What the church is trying to do is repair the damage that was done and make sure, as much as is humanly possible, that it doesn't happen again," said Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the archdiocese. "This whole sad chapter in the church's life is an opportunity for purification."


See also, the never-ending chronicle of church-related crime.

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