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The head of the archdiocese of Los Angeles says he is willing to appear before a grand jury. Federal prosecutors are investigating whether Cardinal Roger Mahony is criminally culpable for the way he dealt with priests who allegedly abused children. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports that prosecutors have been interested in the case for years.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Cardinal Mahony thought he was done with the sex abuse scandal. In 2004, he admitted publicly that he had made mistakes by transferring abusive priests from diocese to diocese. In 2007, the archdiocese paid $660 million to more than 500 alleged victims, by far the largest settlement in the country. But the criminal investigation never went away. Now, a federal grand jury's investigating whether he and his deputies obstructed justice or defrauded parishioners.

(Soundbite of interview)

Cardinal ROGER MAHONY (Archbishop, Los Angeles, California): We were mystified and puzzled by the whole thing.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Mahony spoke yesterday on KNX, a Los Angeles talk radio station. He's declined an interview with NPR. He said the grand jury has subpoenaed records involving 22 priests; two of them have died, and the rest are no longer in ministry. Mahony added that most of the alleged abuse occurred decades ago, when it was standard practice to put an abusive priest into a treatment program and later return him to ministry.

Card. MAHONY: This way of dealing with these issues has evolved, and during those early years, it was not handled right. We've said that over and over again. So, that's what puzzles me. Why now does this come up?

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Two reasons, sources say. First, federal prosecutors may be sifting through documents in civil and criminal cases that have recently been released to lawyers, to see if there's evidence that church officials obstructed justice. Second, sources say prosecutors are exploring using a novel legal theory, namely, that Mahony and others schemed to deprive parishioners of, quote, right of honest services. Patrick Wall investigates sex abuse cases for plaintiffs against the Catholic Church.

Mr. PATRICK WALL (Expert, Roman Catholic Church Sex-Abuse Scandal; Author, "Sex, Priests and Secret Codes"): So, the theory is that Cardinal Mahony knew, that the vicars for clergy knew, and that several auxiliary bishops knew, and they failed to warn the public of that danger.

Professor REBECCA LONERGAN (Associate Director, Legal Writing and Advocacy, USC Law; Former Federal Prosecutor): This is a very creative and unusual use of a statute that's been out there for two decades.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Rebecca Lonergan is a former federal prosecutor who specializes in public corruption cases. She says federal prosecutors are using public corruption laws that are unavailable to the local district attorney. Since 2002, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office has investigated Mahony for perjury and obstruction of justice. That investigation hit a dead end. But sources say files obtained by the local grand jury found their way over to the U.S. attorney's office. And last fall, federal prosecutors began presenting evidence to a grand jury with their new legal theories. Lonergan says the statute has never been used against church officials and, she says, it's a hard argument to make to a jury.

Prof. LONERGAN: When you have a defendant like a church official who is highly respected, it's a very steep hill to climb to convince people that these people have an actual intent to harm, an intent to defraud. Poor judgment is not the same thing as an attempt to defraud.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: For his part, Cardinal Mahony says he is cooperating with investigators and believes that despite mistakes he may have made in the past, the archdiocese today is safe for children. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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