Cardinal Roger Mahony testifies in Fresno sex abuse trial

By Duke Helfand and Victoria Kim
Reporting from Fresno — Cardinal Roger M. Mahony made a rare courtroom appearance Tuesday, telling jurors in a clergy sex-abuse civil trial that accusations of molestation at a Central Valley church were never brought to his attention during his time as an official in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno.

“I don’t recall any case while I was here of allegations of sexual abuse of a child,” Mahony testified. “I don’t know how it would be handled, because I don’t recall it.”

Mahony served in various high-ranking positions in the Fresno diocese during part of the time when two brothers — George and Howard Santillan — allege they were molested by a parish priest in the Central Valley town of Wasco. The plaintiffs allege in the suit that the diocese failed to protect the children from the abuse and failed to address it.

Mahony was subpoenaed as a witness in the case by plaintiffs’ attorneys. They believe a deposition provided by Mahony offers evidence that the diocese may have been informed by a housekeeper of the alleged molestation. The housekeeper, according to court documents, let the boys into the accused priest’s rectory bedroom and knew they were alone with him.

The alleged abuse occurred from 1959 to 1973. Responding to questions from a plaintiff’s attorney about the duties of church employees to report abuse, Mahony said there were no “procedures” or “handbooks” at the time to spell out appropriate action. Still, Mahony said, he would have expected the housekeeper to come forward.

“She should tell somebody,” he testified. “If anyone has knowledge that a child was in danger, any human being has to do something about it.”

During his time in the Fresno diocese, sexual abuse of children was not discussed as an issue among church officials or even society at large, Mahony said.

“Any kind of problem like this was looked at as a spiritual failure,” Mahony said. “It was dealt with as a spiritual problem.”

A plaintiff’s attorney, Jeff Anderson, questioned Mahony at length about what hypothetical situations could be considered grounds for suspicion of child sexual abuse by priests. Mahony balked at the line of inquiry, saying the attorney should instead be focused on the actual case before the court.

Anderson also asked the cardinal at one point if he ever had boys visit him in his private quarters. Other than possibly his nephews, he said he had not.

“It just wouldn’t be appropriate. I avoided it at all costs,” he replied.

Another plaintiff’s attorney, Anthony De Marco, asked Mahony about the propriety of a priest massaging a child. Mahony said it was inappropriate, but added that at the time it may not have raised concerns the way it would now.

“In those days, that was not in somebody’s forethought that it was a sexual thing,” he said.

The Santillan lawsuit was initially dismissed by a trial judge but was revived in May because of Mahony’s deposition statements.

On Monday, Mahony’s attorney asked Fresno County Superior Court Judge Donald S. Black to allow the cardinal to enter the courthouse through a separate entrance, citing security reasons. Black denied the request.

Mahony, who flew to Fresno on Tuesday in a private plane, was accompanied into the courtroom by two attorneys and a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Fresno County sheriff’s deputies escorted the group to and from the courtroom as camera and photo crews swarmed around them.

Mahony was composed during his three-hour testimony. After each question, he turned to jurors and addressed them directly. George Santillan, now a 59-year-old retiree who lives in Arizona, watched from the audience. He declined to comment as he left the courthouse.