Priests' Files to Shed Light on Abuse Scandal in L.A.

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Now that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles has reached a record settlement with alleged victims of clergy sex abuse, the next legal battle is heating up.

Under the settlement, the archdiocese is preparing to release personnel files of the accused priests. Plaintiffs' lawyers say these files could implicate Cardinal Roger Mahony in a widespread cover-up.

For Lee Bashforth, last week's settlement was a small price to pay for a cardinal he accuses of covering up years of sexual abuse. Immediately following the settlement, Bashforth held up an old photo of his first communion. Father Michael Wempe has his arm around Bashforth, who wears a proud smile.

"There's a picture of him here, with me as a 7-year-old boy, which is when my abuse began and lasted a decade," Bashforth says.

Bashforth says Cardinal Roger Mahony's public apology to the hundreds of victims of sexual abuse wasn't enough.

"Roger Mahony offered a very disingenuous and hollow apology," he says. "And he is sorry. I believe he's sorry. But he's sorry he was caught covering up these crimes."

Mahony has withstood strong criticism for the way he's handled this scandal. He chose to fight the release of priests' files all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He also challenged the California law that gave people a one-year window to file sex abuse claims no matter when they occurred.

Both of these tactics failed. But they did succeed in delaying a settlement for four years. Now, as part of that settlement, Mahony agreed to release all of the church's personnel files. Some of those files may be held up if individual priests raise objections to a judge. Still, it's hoped many will be released in the coming months.

Plaintiffs' attorney John Manly is one of a handful of lawyers who has seen all of these files. He says they show the cardinal routinely covered up sexual abuse in the archdiocese and shuffled abusing priests from parish to parish. Manly believes the release of these files will force Mahony to resign.

"There will be a volcanic reaction by the public and the media," Manly predicts. "And onne of two things will happen: Either he'll be indicted, or he will be effectively promoted to the Vatican, by Rome, because his position here is untenable."

That's precisely what happened to former Boston Archdiocese Cardinal Bernard Law in 2002, when he had to disclose personnel files. Law was forced to resign and now presides over one of the five basilicas in Rome where the pope oftentimes celebrates mass.

However, L.A. Archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg says this case is completely different. He says the personnel files of clergy here will show that it was the accused priests, not Cardinal Mahony, who concealed the abuse.

"I think the record will show that these men ... didn't tell the truth to the cardinal, that they went to great lengths to hide what kinds of awful things they were doing to people," Tamberg says.

Plaintiffs' lawyers have called on L.A. District Attorney Steve Cooley to investigate Mahony's role in the church-abuse scandal. Many point to Mahony's admission five years ago in a letter to his priests that he transferred one priest, Father Michael Baker, to a number of different parishes after Baker admitted he molested children. District Attorney Cooley says he hasn't ruled out prosecuting Mahony.

"We have to have a plausible legal theory of criminal liability, and we are not at that stage yet," he says. "But I will tell you this. We have not ruled out at some point in time, using the grand jury to probe the outer reaches of criminal culpability or liability in this matter, we are still working on this."

In the meantime, the fallout of the LA Archdiocese scandal isn't garnering as much attention as other large settlements like the one in Boston five years ago.

Phil Lawler, editor of the online magazine Catholic World News, says that's because the public is tired of it all.

"At the time when things were exploding in Boston, everyone was shocked and outraged," he says. "Now, more than five years later, people have seen so many headlines, I think a lot of people just want it to go away."

Lawler adds that Mahony is much more popular among parishioners than Cardinal Law ever was.

In a diocese that is 70 percent Latino, Mahony has created a name for himself by standing up for immigrant rights.

This, combined with his tough stance during settlement negotiations, has spurred many church observers to guess that Mahony will survive this scandal relatively unscathed ... a prediction that, at least in some circles, has already earned Mahony the nickname "The Teflon Cardinal."

Rob Schmitz reports for member station KQED in San Francisco.

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