Cardinal Mahony’s E-mails Studied by Prosecutors in Catholic Child Sex Probe

No U.S. Catholic leader has been prosecuted for the church’s child-sex scandals. But officials are weighing obstruction and perjury charges against Cardinal Roger Mahony. Philip Shenon reports.

Cardinal Roger Mahony (Reuters)

No U.S. Catholic leader has been prosecuted for the church’s child-sex scandals. But officials are weighing obstruction and perjury charges against Cardinal Roger Mahony—and studying emails showing Mahony discussing with his lawyers ways to avoid giving law enforcement the names of abusive priests. Philip Shenon reports.

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles faces the prospect of an unwelcome retirement gift when he steps down in February: a federal indictment.

Law-enforcement officials tell The Daily Beast that prosecutors are weighing charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury against the 74-year-old cardinal and his deputies over allegations that they covered up rampant child sexual abuse within the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

“The church would like to pretend this investigation has gone away,” said one official familiar with the grand jury’s work. “It hasn’t.”

The cardinal denies wrongdoing and insists he has been assured he is not a target of the federal inquiry. But officials with knowledge of the grand jury’s work say that Mahony remains at the center of the Justice Department’s two-year-old investigation.

Federal prosecutors are paying special attention to seemingly damning emails between the cardinal and his lawyers—in which Mahony outlined tactics to avoid providing prosecutors with the names of abusive priests, the officials said.

One official said the Justice Department has received important assistance from the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office; a related investigation by the D.A.’s office stalled because of the restrictive statute of limitations under California state law. (In a memo released this week, the DA's office said that while it had found evidence of possible "criminal culpability" by archdiocese leaders, the statute of limitations issues made the likelihood of bringing criminal charges "more and more remote with each passing day.") No federal charges are imminent, the official said. But “the church would like to pretend this investigation has gone away. It hasn’t.” The cardinal’s lawyer, J. Michael Hennigan, said in an interview he was “unaware of any indictable crime that might have been conducted by any church official” in the hierarchy of the archdiocese, including Mahony.

The lawyer said Mahony was being unfairly singled out for criticism over policies of the Catholic Church that, while ill-advised, were once routine—specfically, its policy of seeking psychological counseling and treatment for abusive priests, rather than alerting the police. “This guy has taken it for everybody else,” Hennigan said of the cardinal. “And he’s done so in a noble way.”

No national leader of the Catholic Church has been prosecuted as a result of scandals across the country involving pedophile priests.

But lawyers and other advocates for abuse victims in Southern California say they believe there may be an especially strong criminal case against Mahony, if only because of the flood of evidence released from church files as a result of hundreds of civil lawsuits filed against the archdiocese.

The victims groups are pressing the Justice Department to act against the cardinal before his scheduled retirement in February.

The groups say publicly they fear that Mahony, who has led the 4 million-member Southern California archdiocese since 1985, will use his retirement as an opportunity to seek refuge in the Vatican. They say they do not believe his assurances that he will remain in California.

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“The day that Mahony steps down next year is the day that he leaves for the Vatican and never comes back,” predicted Joelle Casteix, southwestern regional director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

The victims groups draw comparisons to Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who resigned his post in Massachusetts in 2002 and left for a comfortable new assignment in Rome in the midst of allegations that he covered up for several abusive priests in New England.

As cardinals, Mahony and Law are entitled to diplomatic protections from the Vatican.

“Mahony should be in jail for what he did,” Casteix told The Daily Beast. “I personally know of dozens of people who were molested because of decisions made by Roger Mahony—decisions that he made personally. If I were Mahony, I’d flee the country.”

His lawyers and spokesmen insist that Mahony, who was born in Los Angeles, has no intention of leaving California, let alone the United States, after his scheduled retirement. They say he will not attempt to resettle in the Vatican or anywhere else outside the United States to avoid criminal charges.

“By any measure, he has earned—and looks forward to—his retirement in his hometown among friends and family,” Mahony’s chief spokesman, Tod Tamberg, told The Daily Beast. “It is beautiful here—the most beautiful place on earth. Why live anywhere else? Seriously.”

Hennigan, the cardinal’s lawyer, said he had been informed by federal investigators that Mahony was not a “target” of the investigation, a term used by the Justice Department for suspects likely to be indicted.

But Mahoney can take only limited comfort from that. Law-enforcement officials said that in such a politically sensitive case, the department was unlikely to identify the cardinal as a target until a final decision had been made in Washington to seek criminal charges.

Justice Department spokesmen in Washington and at the United States Attorneys’ office in Los Angeles had no comment on the status of the investigation of Mahony and the archdiocese.

Professor Timothy Lytton of Albany Law School, author of a 2008 book on the church abuse scandals, Holding Bishops Accountable, said he believed Mahony’s record in dealing with abusive priests was no worse—or better—than other cardinals and senior church leaders in the United States.

Mahony was under special scrutiny, Lytton said, because he has been the target of an especially large number of civil lawsuits that have unearthed detailed church records about his actions in abuse cases.

Lytton said that while politically savvy prosecutors around the country would have been wary of a criminal investigation of senior Catholic leaders in the past, the mood has changed as a result of the years of abuse scandals.

Was it possible a cardinal could face criminal charges? “Things that would have been politically unthinkable 20 years ago are now thinkable,” Lytton said. The indictment of a cardinal, he said, “is now politically viable.”

In a deposition made public last year, one of Mahony’s aides testified that he had pressed the cardinal in 2000 to report a priest who was a notorious child abuser to law-enforcement agencies. But the aide said Mahony refused.

The abusive priest, Father Michael Baker, confessed to Mahony in 1986 that he was a pedophile. Instead of alerting the police, Mahony, then a bishop, sent Baker to a treatment center and later allowed him to resume parish work. Baker, now in prison, went on to molest several more children.

The Los Angeles archdiocese, which agreed three years ago to pay out $660 million to settle civilian lawsuits brought by hundreds of abuse victims, the largest settlement of its kind in the nation, is aggressively defending Mahony.

Hennigan, the cardinal’s lawyer, said Mahony had offered his full cooperation to the United States Attorney’s office in Los Angeles and that the cardinal had heard nothing from the grand jury in months. “It’s been eerily quiet for a good long while,” the lawyer said.

Hennigan said Mahony has been unfairly maligned by news organizations in Los Angeles, and that the cardinal deserved praise for all that he has done in recent years to insure that abusive priests are identified and quickly reported to the police. “The things he’s done with the archdiocese have been amazing,” the lawyer said of Mahony’s programs to prevent sexual abuse in Catholic schools, which educate tens of thousands of children in Southern California.

“I have sometimes challenged people to tell me if there’s a safer place in the United States for children than the archdiocese of Los Angeles.”

Philip Shenon, a former investigative reporter at The New York Times, is the author of The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation.