LA Cardinal testifies in valley church abuse case


FRESNO, Calif. — Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles made a rare court appearance to testify that he knew nothing of sexual abuse two brothers claim they suffered years ago at the hands of a priest in rural central California.

Mahony, who heads the nation’s largest Roman Catholic archdiocese, served as a high-level administrator for the Fresno diocese during some of the 14 years George and Howard Santillan say they were molested by Monsignor Anthony Herdegen in Wasco, a small farming town near Bakersfield.

Wearing his formal clergy collar, the cardinal testified Tuesday that he never heard during his 16 years at the Fresno diocese that Herdegen was molesting boys in his bedroom, nor did he hear of any other alleged sexual crimes.

“I don’t recall any case of any allegation of sexual abuse of a child by a priest so I don’t know how it might have been handled because I never heard of it,” Mahony told jurors in Fresno County Superior Court.

“Early on, any kind of problem like this to my recollection was looked at as a spiritual failure, that there was a lack of spiritual fortitude and therefore it was treated with a spiritual remedy. We became aware that that wasn’t appropriate.”

It’s the second time Mahony has ever taken the witness stand to answer questions before jurors in cases tied to the clergy sex abuse scandal that has shaken the U.S. church.

The Santillan brothers sued the Fresno diocese in 2003, claiming negligence by officials who they say should have known about the alleged abuse.

The Rev. Jesse Avila, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, said he could not comment on the ongoing trial, but said the diocese has faced about a dozen cases claiming abuse by clergy in the last 70 years. Defense attorneys also declined comment.

The brothers claim Herdegen sexually abused them from 1959 through 1973 while he served as a priest at St. John’s Catholic Church, their hometown parish in Wasco. Their attorney, Jeff Anderson, said Herdegen’s housekeeper let the boys into the priest’s rectory bedroom and knew they were alone with him.

In that period, Mahony directed the Fresno diocese’s charities and social services and served as its chief archivist. Anderson said the cardinal supervised Herdegen and had access to secret files in which church higher-ups kept note of potential abuses and other sensitive or damaging information.

The brothers filed their lawsuit during a one-year window that voided the statute of limitations on old abuse claims in California.

A trial court initially dismissed their suit, ruling that there was no evidence that the diocese knew of abuse by Herdegen. But last May, a three-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeals ruled that Mahony’s deposition testimony showed church officials either knew or should have known that Herdegen was a potential predator.

The civil trial takes place against the backdrop of a reported grand jury investigation of the actions of the cardinal and other Los Angeles archdiocese officials over their handling of alleged clergy child molestation cases.

Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the archdiocese, declined to comment on the probe.

In 2007, the archdiocese reached a record $660 million settlement with more than 500 alleged victims of child abuse. In total, the abuse scandal has cost the U.S. church more than $2.6 billion in settlements and related expenses since 1950, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The last time Mahony appeared in court was in 1998 for the case of two brothers who said they were abused for years by a Stockton priest while Mahony was bishop of that diocese. The cardinal also testified in that case – which resulted in a $7.5 million settlement – that he was unaware of the abuse.

Many victims need encouragement to come forward, and the few cases that go to trial renew their faith in the justice system, said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

“It defies common sense and logic that in a small closely knit diocese like Fresno that other church officials did not know about this long-standing abuse,” Clohessy said. “We praise these two brave men for having the courage to submit to this process.”