LOS ANGELES, Oct. 6 – A documentary film featuring an extraordinarily candid interview with a former priest convicted of molesting children has heightened interest among law enforcement officials here in considering a criminal case against Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, says a prosecutor who has been investigating sexual abuse cases involving priests.
In the documentary, “Deliver Us From Evil,” the former priest, Oliver O’Grady, describes how he abused young boys and girls across central California over 20 years, including a period in the 1980’s when Cardinal Mahony was his superior as the bishop in Stockton.
The former priest, who lives in Ireland, said he was able to continue abusing children in part because of actions by Cardinal Mahony, who now heads the country’s largest Roman Catholic archdiocese, here in Los Angeles, and is among the church’s most influential American leaders. Mr. O’Grady says in the film that as bishop in Stockton, the cardinal moved him from parish to parish in the face of abuse accusations.
“The film does certainly charge the atmosphere here in Los Angeles,” said William Hodgman, the top deputy of the target crimes division of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office, who coordinated prosecutions of priests in Los Angeles.
The film also “will fuel ongoing consideration as to whether Cardinal Mahony and others engaged in criminal activity,” Mr. Hodgman added.
Joe Scott, a spokesman for the district attorney, Steve Cooley, confirmed that characterization.
The lawyer for the Los Angeles archdiocese, Michael Hennigan, said Friday, “If Mr. Hodgman is suggesting in any way that the cardinal is the subject of a criminal investigation, he is being irresponsible and in our judgment is committing prosecutorial misconduct.”
Mr. O’Grady, who confessed to abusing boys and girls as young as 9 months old and also adult women, said in the documentary that “I should have been removed” from the priesthood by Cardinal Mahony. In 1993, he was convicted on four counts of “lewd and lascivious” acts with two preteen brothers and served seven years in prison.
Cardinal Mahony, who was the bishop in Stockton from 1980 to 1985, when he was appointed archbishop of Los Angeles, has disputed Mr. O’Grady’s account of events. His spokesman, Tod Tamberg, said Mr. O’Grady’s comments in the documentary were not believable.
“The film rests on the credibility of a convicted child molester who lied to his bishop, to his therapists, to the families of the young people he abused and to law enforcement,” Mr. Tamberg said. “He is the classic pedophile. He lies to conceal his activity from public view.”
But Mr. Hodgman said officials in the district attorney’s office believed that Mr. O’Grady’s revelations in the documentary, along with documents obtained from the archdiocese through subpoena, had given new evidentiary muscle in determining whether criminal acts were committed in handling pedophilic priests.
Mr. Hodgman, who appears in the documentary, declined to comment about the content of the documents, which he said his office had spent several years trying to obtain.
In a telephone interview on Thursday from Ireland, Mr. O’Grady maintained that he informed Cardinal Mahony of his “situation” while working as a priest in Stockton. “I told him I would go to counseling and he said fine,” Mr. O’Grady said. “We thought I had resolved it.”
The film was written and directed by Amy Berg, a former television producer. It features a taped deposition from 1997 stemming from a civil trial in Stockton in which the brothers in the criminal case against Mr. O’Grady brought suit against the local diocese, alleging that its bishops – including Cardinal Mahony – failed to prevent Mr. O’Grady from having contact with children in the face of evidence of his history of abuse.
In that deposition, Cardinal Mahony denied having known that Mr. O’Grady was a pedophile. The brothers’ lawyers presented a police report about Mr. O’Grady’s being accused of molestation along with a 1976 letter to one victim, an 11-year-old girl, in which Mr. O’Grady admitted molesting her.
In a 2004 deposition related to civil trials in Los Angeles, Cardinal Mahony stated that expressing sexual urges toward a 9-year-old would not be automatic cause for removing a priest from duty. He also said he barely knew Mr. O’Grady, though lawyers in the cases presented warm letters exchanged between the two.
In the Stockton civil case, a jury awarded $30 million in damages to the brothers in 1998, an award reduced to $7 million in negotiations. According to news media accounts at the time, jurors said they did not find Cardinal Mahony’s testimony, that he was unaware of Mr. O’Grady’s proclivities, credible.
“I was in Stockton for that trial,” said David Clohessy, the national director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “The jurors were crystal clear that they didn’t buy what he was saying.”
The Los Angeles district attorney’s office is currently prosecuting or investigating several criminal cases of sexual abuse by priests in Los Angeles County, where there are also more than 500 civil suits, some naming Cardinal Mahony.
In September, a man from Mexico City filed suit against the Diocese of Tehuac?n, Mexico, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and Cardinal Mahony and his counterpart in Tehuac?n, alleging that the two of them transferred a priest to the United States in 1987 despite knowing he had molested minors in Mexico.
The district attorney has had protracted battles with the archdiocese over obtaining church records, and has long examined Cardinal Mahony’s criminal culpability in the unresolved cases, Mr. Hodgman said.
Criminal cases against church leaders are rare and extraordinarily difficult to pursue. Legal experts said prosecutors might hope Mr. O’Grady’s statements would help them establish a pattern of Cardinal Mahony responding inadequately to reports of abuse.
“What the movie does is confirm that this was a longstanding practice of covering up,” said Prof. Marci A. Hamilton of the Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School in New York, who is an expert on church-state cases. “It corroborates evidence. But whether the movie by itself could be aired in the courtroom is another issue”
No senior Roman Catholic Church official in the United States has been prosecuted in a sex-crimes case, Professor Hamilton said. Because most victims do not come forward until years or even decades after they are abused, the statute of limitations has been a preventive bar.
“The statute of limitations has been a huge impregnable wall,” Professor Hamilton said. “To the extent that a movie like this stirs up the passions of rank-and-file Catholics and citizens it makes it harder for Mahony to say he is being singled out. He has such a history and the numbers are so large, it has been frustrating for prosecutors to get nowhere.”
Mr. Tamberg, the Los Angeles Archdiocese spokesman, dismissed the notion that the film would harm the cardinal. “It is such a biased piece of filmmaking,” he said, “that it has no credibility and will almost certainly have no credibility in the eyes of authorities.”
The documentary, which won first place in the documentary category at the Los Angeles film festival in June, will be publicly released in New York, Los Angeles and Boston next week.
From the 1970’s to the 1990’s, Mr. O’Grady concedes in the film, he sexually abused children. He also describes conversations with Cardinal Mahony about his sexual feelings toward children, and his troubles with law enforcement officials and angry families in towns where he committed his abuse.
(The Stockton police are portrayed in the documentary as filing a report on Mr. O’Grady, and having dropped their investigation after church officials assured them that he would be removed from the parish. A spokeswoman for the department, Roseann Clark, said the department had no record of an investigation into him.)
After the incident in Stockton, but long before his conviction, Mr. O’Grady was moved to another parish – his fourth.
The film also features interviews with several of his victims and their parents, whose festering anguish and heartache seem to have healed little over the years.
Ann Jyono, one of Mr. O’Grady’s victims and a central character in the film, said in a telephone interview Thursday that she was a practicing Catholic, and that while she longed to see Cardinal Mahony prosecuted, she would settle for a conversation with him about her years of abuse at Mr. O’Grady’s hands.
“I hope people appreciate that it is not easy to be naked in front of everybody with your shame,” Ms. Jyono said. “In this film, you find out that Mahony had a hand in everything that happened to me.”