So what did Cardinal Mahony believe, really?

The news out of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is painful and stunning, especially for those who have not been closely following the fine details of the Catholic clergy sexual-abuse scandals over the past quarter century or more. Actually, the real news was not issued by the archdiocese, but was yanked out into the open air by journalists who kept pushing for decades of vile secrets to be made public. The bottom line: One of the leaders of the progressive wing of the Catholic church in America -- Cardinal Roger M. Mahony -- discussed with his aides, in memos and behind closed doors, ways to prevent police from learning about specific cases of priests abusing children and teen-agers.

The Los Angeles Times story contains many of the key details about the strategies used by the cardinal and Msgr. Thomas J. Curry, who in the late 1980s was the top archdiocesan expert on sex-abuse cases. Here is some of the crucial info about a key case:

In the confidential letters, filed this month as evidence in a civil court case, Curry proposed strategies to prevent police from investigating three priests who had admitted to church officials that they abused young boys. Curry suggested to Mahony that they prevent them from seeing therapists who might alert authorities and that they give the priests out-of-state assignments to avoid criminal investigators.

One such case that has previously received little attention is that of Msgr. Peter Garcia, who admitted preying for decades on undocumented children in predominantly Spanish-speaking parishes. After Garcia's discharge from a New Mexico treatment center for pedophile clergy, Mahony ordered him to stay away from California "for the foreseeable future" in order to avoid legal accountability, the files show. "I believe that if Monsignor Garcia were to reappear here within the archdiocese we might very well have some type of legal action filed in both the criminal and civil sectors," the archbishop wrote to the treatment center's director in July 1986.

The following year, in a letter to Mahony about bringing Garcia back to work in the archdiocese, Curry said he was worried that victims in Los Angeles might see the priest and call police.

"[T]here are numerous -- maybe twenty -- adolescents or young adults that Peter was involved with in a first degree felony manner. The possibility of one of these seeing him is simply too great," Curry wrote in May 1987.

Curry, by the way, now serves as the auxiliary bishop for Santa Barbara.

One of the keys to this ongoing story -- but not to the mainstream coverage -- winks out at readers in that passage from the Los Angeles Times report. The church's strategy in that era saw pedophilia as the central problem and, to this day, that mysterious condition remains the key to mainstream news reports on this topic. Meanwhile, most of the abuse reports focused on priests having sex with, as the story notes, "adolescents or young adults," most of them males, not with prepubescent children.

It is clear, in these new documents, that Mahony and his staff truly believed that many, if not most, of these priests could be rehabilitated and returned to ministry. As the story notes:

Mahony was appointed archbishop in 1985 after five years leading the Stockton diocese. While there, he had dealt with three allegations of clergy abuse, including one case in which he personally reported the priest to police. In Los Angeles, he tapped Curry, an Irish-born priest, as vicar of clergy. The records show that sex abuse allegations were handled almost exclusively by the archbishop and his vicar. Memos that crossed their desks included graphic details, such as one letter from another priest accusing Garcia of tying up and raping a young boy in Lancaster.

Mahony personally phoned the priests' therapists about their progress, wrote the priests encouraging letters and dispatched Curry to visit them at a New Mexico facility, Servants of the Paraclete, that treated pedophile priests.

"Each of you there at Jemez Springs is very much in my prayers and I call you to mind each day during my celebration of the Eucharist," Mahony wrote. ...

It's crucial to ask: What, precisely, did the Catholic leaders think they were doing? While the Los Angeles Times story gets the legal details down, coverage of the religious angles of the story are weak or nonexistent. It's clear that Mahony and others were hiding some clergy, with the belief that they could avoid the law and return to ministry.

But why? What did they think was possible, in terms of rehabilitation? What did they believe and why did they believe it?

The same issue can be seen between the lines in The New York Times, in a new story about the same revelations on the West Coast.

In a written statement released on Monday, Cardinal Mahony, who took over the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1985 and retired in 2011, apologized to the victims of the sexual abuse.

“Various steps toward safeguarding all children in the church began here in 1987 and progressed year by year as we learned more about those who abused and the ineffectiveness of so-called ‘treatments’ at the time,” the statement said. “Nonetheless, even as we began to confront the problem, I remained naive myself about the full and lasting impact these horrible acts would have on the lives of those who were abused by men who were supposed to be their spiritual guides.”

Cardinal Mahony said he came to understand that impact only two decades later, when he met with almost 100 victims of sexual abuse by priests under his charge. He now keeps an index card for each one of those victims, praying for each one every day, he said in the statement.

When dealing with these horrific cases, it is important to remember that this scandal has touched many of the most heralded leaders on the Catholic right as well as the left. The evidence suggests that almost everyone in the Catholic hierarchy bought into, as Mahony put it, the "so-called 'treatments' at that time."

For example, remember the recent scandal involving a conservative hero -- Father Benedict Groeschel -- who calmly stated his belief that older teen-agers have been known to seduce weak priests? He also stated that priests who are first-time offenders could be rehabilitated and may not need to be jailed.

As I wrote in a post about that case:

For better and for worse, it appears that Groeschel was attempting to draw a line between two kinds of abuse, a line that is often blurred in mainstream news coverage throughout the three decades of these scandals in the Catholic Church (and other religious bodies, as well). The press often writes about the abuse of children without noting that the vast majority of the cases have involved “ephebophilia” -- sex with teens and under-aged children -- not “pedophilia,” with prepubescent children. In the past, Catholic officials have been tempted to believe that that priests involved in ephebophilia should be treated with more leniency than those wrestling with pedophilia.

Is this, once again, what Mahony and his staff believed, that the many clergy who were acting out with teen-agers needed to be handled in a more lenient manner than the few who were stalking and abusing very young children?

Just asking. Again. What did these shepherds think they were doing, as they sought to rehabilitate these predators?

PHOTO: A typical photo illustration of Cardinal Manony, with a typical and editorial comment, from a conservative Catholic weblog.

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