Cardinal Mahony's deal with the devil

FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article said lawsuits were filed on behalf of more than 600 victims; it should have said more than 500.

I spent a few hours Friday reading through files Mahony has fought for years to keep out of the hands of police, prosecutors and the public. Even when you know what you're in for, as we all do by now, the deeply disturbing details of abuse — along with the repeated missed opportunities to act on Mahony's part — are stomach-turning.

Early in 1987, Mahony was sent a report from a "treatment center" about Father Michael Baker, who had earlier admitted his history of molestation to Mahony. The report describes in detail Baker's confessions about his years-long sexual abuse of teenage boys and says he was also involved with the mother of one boy.

"As I see it," says the author of the report, "he is looking at several second degree felony charges and civil liability that could go into the millions of dollars in terms of what he did with both of these kids."

And that might have been the case, if Mahony had called the police. Instead, the following month, Mahony wrote to Baker.

"Dear Mike: I am writing to assure you of my continuing prayers and interest in you and your progress, as I was pleased to receive the recent report from those involved in your care."

Mahony later allowed Baker to return to ministry. The priest was ordered to stay away from children, but was not monitored. He was soon abusing new victims and in 2007 pleaded guilty to molesting two boys and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

After evidence of Baker's continued abuse came to light, some officials in the archdiocese began planning for a notice to be read from the pulpit in churches where Baker had worked, in case there were other victims. Mahony wanted to avoid that. "There is no alternative to public announcements at all the masses in 15 parishes???" he asked in a memo to a colleague. "Wow, that really scares the daylights out of me!!"

The more you know about what went on, the more you must demand to know how Mahony could have gotten away with it for so long.

Of course, Mahony is a powerful man with powerful allies in a very insular community. He was able to hire connected, influential lawyers who resisted every media attempt to expose the truth. A retired judge served on Mahony's toothless sexual abuse advisory board, which had no real purpose other than to make it look like Mahony was doing something.

I'm tired of hearing former L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley say he tried to expose the scandal and prosecute perpetrators and their supervisors but was hamstrung by statutes of limitations, which had lapsed in many of the cases.

Nonsense. Cooley needed more courage and less caution. Regardless of whether he could have proved conspiracy or any other crimes against top officials, Cooley should have found a way to use a grand jury to get hold of the records that now, upon their release, are so utterly damning.

But maybe Mahony has been brought low enough by this enduring stain on his legacy. Trying to save his own skin was a deal with the devil, and for that, there's hell to pay.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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