Victims Accuse L.A. Catholic Church Leaders Of Covering Up Sex Abuse

Prosecutors in California say they are reviewing newly-released personnel files that document efforts by the Los Angeles Archdiocese to cover up clergy sexual abuse. They haven't said whether they might pursue criminal charges against retired Cardinal Roger Mahony. Statutes of limitations make prosecution difficult, but victims are calling on authorities to be more creative and find a way to punish church higher-ups for protecting abusive priests, rather then children.

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Prosecutors in California say they're looking into newly released files about abusive priests. The files were kept by the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The prosecutors are not yet saying whether they may try to build a case against church officials for covering up evidence of abuse.

As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, victims are calling for criminal prosecution of the retired leader of the archdiocese, Cardinal Roger Mahony.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Documents released this week paint a vivid picture of church leaders shuffling around priests suspected of sexual abuse - sometimes out of the country - to duck legal action. Notes also show them steering abusive priests away from therapists required to report to police. In one 2002 memo, Cardinal Mahony insisted a case be kept quiet so as not to, quote, "open up another firestorm."

ANTHONY DEMARCO: I was - even after working on these files for as long as I have - still surprised to see how express those intents were.

SMITH: Victims' attorney Anthony DeMarco says the files show church leaders knew they were helping to cover up a crime, and he says they need to be held accountable. He concedes that the statute of limitations makes it hard to bring charges like child endangerment, obstruction of justice or conspiracy. But as Barbara Dorris, from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, puts it: Prosecutors just need to get more creative.

BARBARA DORRIS: If you got Al Capone on tax evasion, prosecutors can find a way to prosecute this criminal behavior. There has to be a way.

SMITH: One way might be perjury. John Manley, attorney for another abuse victim, deposed Cardinal Mahony in a civil suit in 2010.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE)

JOHN MANLEY: Cardinal, did the idea of a public scandal ever enter your mind and influence you not to call the police when these molestation allegations came to your attention?

CARDINAL ROGER MAHONY: No.

MANLEY: So the idea of...

That's a lie. The documents produced this week show it's a lie. That's precisely what he did.

SMITH: Manley says Cardinal Mahony's own memo proves it, but the cardinal's attorneys reject any suggestion of perjury.

J. MICHAEL HENNIGAN: I don't think you're going to find any crimes here.

SMITH: Attorney J. Michael Hennigan says no one failed to report for fear of scandal. Church leaders, he says, simply didn't see it as their role. In a statement this week, Mahony apologized for, quote, "ignorance, bad decisions and moral failings." And while the cardinal took, quote, "full responsibility for his failure to fully protect children," Hennigan says that's different from committing a crime.

HENNIGAN: There was never any action that intentionally put children in harm's way. There were naive, sometimes, efforts to correct the problem that then inadvertently put children in harm's way, but that's the difference between civil and criminal liability.

SMITH: The first case of a church higher-up in the U.S. being convicted of a crime for covering up abuse was just six months ago, when Monsignor William Lynn in Philadelphia was sentenced to three to six years in prison for child endangerment. The second case came some six weeks later, when Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City was convicted of a misdemeanor for failing to report suspected abuse.

MARCI HAMILTON: Once those two convictions were announced, you knew that we were in a new era.

SMITH: That's Cardozo Law School professor Marci Hamilton.

HAMILTON: The story was really about if you put children at risk whether you're the abuser or the institution, you're going to go to jail.

SMITH: More documents covering more recent cases of abuse will be released in coming days, possibly giving prosecutors a better opening to pursue charges. Victims say even the possibility represents progress. As one recalled, 10 years ago in Boston, it was considered out there to be demanding just the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law. Back then, as she puts it, even I wondered if we were being too extreme.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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