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L.A. Files Detail Decades of Clergy Sex Abuse

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

In Los Angeles, new documents were released today dealing with the priest sexual abuse scandal. They show that for decades the archdiocese transferred abusive priests from one parish to another rather than removing them. The papers were produced as part of settlement talks with lawyers for 560 alleged victims. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY reporting:

The stack of documents lists the careers of some 125 clergy in the Los Angeles Archdiocese who allegedly abused young boys and girls. Michael Hennigan, the attorney for the archdiocese, says the church was barred by court order from releasing the documents until last month. And what they show, he says, is a story of shame but progress.

Mr. MICHAEL HENNIGAN (Church Attorney): I think, in the beginning, what these files show are men of goodwill struggling to deal with a problem that they didn't understand very well. And as time passed and we got to, say, the middle '80s, we began dealing with it more effectively. And by the time we got to the '90s, we were getting pretty good at it.

HAGERTY: And now, he says, the Los Angeles Archdiocese is one of the safest organizations in the country. Jeffrey Anderson doesn't quite see it that way. He's an attorney for the alleged victims. He says Roger Mahony often knew of abuse but allowed priests to go into treatment and then return to ministry. Take, for example, the case of Father Michael Baker. In 1986, Baker confessed to then-Archbishop Mahony that he had had sexual relationships with two young boys from 1978 to 1985.

Mr. JEFFREY ANDERSON (Victims' Attorney): Cardinal Mahony had actual knowledge from Michael Baker's lips to Cardinal Mahony's ears, `I abused two kids.'

HAGERTY: But instead of removing him from ministry, Mahony sent Baker for counseling and therapy. Church attorney Hennigan says they believed Baker to be fully recovered, which he says turned out to be naive.

Mr. HENNIGAN: So the problem with Michael Baker was there was a deceptive sense of success, and he gradually, over long periods of time, was returned to ministries that gave him casual access to children.

HAGERTY: Anderson says Baker proceeded to abuse 10 more children. He says Mahony personally knew of and transferred eight priests rather than removing them from active ministry. In three cases, he says, Mahony invited them to live with him in the chancery, where he could, quote, "keep his eye on them." But Anderson says he would not know that from the documents released today.

Mr. ANDERSON: These are not the actual documents. These are sanitized versions. And so to the extent that it is not a full disclosure, it is only a half-truth.

HAGERTY: Take the case of Father Carlos Rodriguez. His document is all of 12 lines. It mentions one report of, quote, "inappropriate conduct with a minor in 1987." Anderson says there were several allegations. The document says the archdiocese sent Rodriguez for treatment, and then 11 years later he was removed from the priesthood, but it does not give these details.

Mr. ANDERSON: After he received offender's treatment, instead of reporting it to the police, they put him in another assignment, where he continued to abuse the youth he had already been abusing before and several other youth, three boys in one family alone.

HAGERTY: Anderson says he knows this because he handled the case, but those details remain locked in the full case files on each priest, something that the archdiocese refuses to release. Church attorney Michael Hennigan says Cardinal Mahony's major sin was that he was too naive when he believed that therapy could cure these men.

Mr. HENNIGAN: Certainly the cardinal feels embarrassed, humiliated and a sense of contrite regret that his understanding didn't evolve more quickly than it did.

HAGERTY: But he says that the cardinal is bringing the abuse into the open to reassure parents and children that churches in Los Angeles are safe places to worship. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty
Barbara Bradley Hagerty is the religion correspondent for NPR, reporting on the intersection of faith and politics, law, science and culture. Her New York Times best-selling book, "Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality," was published by Riverhead/Penguin Group in May 2009. Among others, Barb has received the American Women in Radio and Television Award, the Headliners Award and the Religion Newswriters Association Award for radio reporting.