Priests’ Ecclesiastical Missteps Treated More Sternly Than Abuse

Los Angeles, CA — The archdiocese of Los Angeles learned in the late 1970s that one of its priests had sexually assaulted a 16-year-old boy so violently that he was left bleeding and “in a state of shock.” The priest said he was too drunk to remember what happened and officials took no further action.

But two decades later, word reached Cardinal Roger M. Mahony that the same priest was molesting again and improperly performing the sacrament of confession on his victim. The archdiocese sprang to action: It dispatched investigators, interviewed a raft of witnesses and discussed the harshest of all church penalties—not for the abuse but for the violation of church law.

“Given the seriousness of this abuse of the sacrament of penance … it is your responsibility to formally declare the existence of the excommunication and then refer the matter to Rome,” one cleric told Mahony in a memo.

The case of Father Jose Ugarte is one of several instances detailed in newly released records in which archdiocese officials displayed outrage over a priest’s ecclesiastical missteps while doing little for the victims of his sexual abuse.

The revelations emerged from 12,000 pages of the once-confidential personnel files of more than 100 priests accused of abuse. The archdiocese posted the documents on its website Thursday night, an hour after a Los Angeles judge ended five and a half years of legal wrangling over the release of the files with an order compelling the church to make the documents public within three weeks.

Victims, their lawyers, reporters and members of the public spent hours Friday poring through records that stretched back to the 1940s and provided details about the scope of abuse in church ranks never before seen.

The files also suggested that the attempts to protect abusers from law enforcement extended beyond the L.A. archdiocese to a Catholic order tasked with rehabilitating abusers.

“Once more, we ask you to PLEASE DESTROY THESE PAGES AND ANY OTHER MATERIAL YOU HAVE RECEIVED FROM US,” the acting director of the order’s treatment program wrote to Mahony in 1988 in a letter detailing therapists’ reports about a prolific molester. “This is stated for your own and our legal protection.”

The order, the Servants of the Paraclete, closed the New Mexico facility where many Los Angeles priests were sent amid a flood of lawsuits in the mid-1990s. A lawyer for the order declined to comment, but indicated in a 2011 civil court filing that all treatment records were destroyed.

Mahony disregarded the order’s advice, and therapy memos are among the most detailed records in the files.

One evaluation recounts how Father Joseph Pina, an East L.A. parish priest, said he was attracted to a victim, an eighth-grade girl, when he saw her in a costume.

“She dressed as Snow White … I had a crush on Snow White, so I started to open myself up to her,” he told the psychologist. In a report sent to a top Mahony aide, the psychologist expressed concern the abuse was never reported to authorities.

“All so very sad,” Mahony wrote years later after Pina was placed on leave. He was defrocked in 2006.

The limitations of the treatment at the Servants’ center are evident in the file. After months of therapy in 1994, Father John Dawson was allowed to leave the facility for a weekend. Among the first things Dawson, who had been accused of plying altar boy victims with pot and beer, did was apply for a job at the Arizona Boys School in Phoenix. Treatment center staff found out only after the school phoned Dawson to arrange an interview. “Had they not called the Villa, it is doubtful that Fr. Dawson would have informed us of that job application and interview,” according to a 1994 letter to Mahony’s vicar for clergy, Msgr. Timothy Dyer.

In some cases, the behavior that drew the greatest ire of the hierarchy involved breaking church rather than criminal laws. After first learning of Michael Baker’s abuse of boys in 1986, church leaders sent the priest to therapy, then returned him to ministry believing his word that he would stay away from children.

Yet in 2000, information that Baker was performing baptisms without permission set off a new level of alarm among the church’s top officials. They discussed launching a canonical investigation, and for the first time in Baker’s checkered years with the church, officials raised the prospect of contacting police.

They mulled getting a restraining order to keep him away from churches.

“Please proceed — this is very bad!” Mahony scrawled across the bottom of a memo on starting a church investigation into the baptisms. Ultimately, church officials did not seek a restraining order.

Archdiocese officials finally contacted police about Baker’s abuse of children when the scandal erupted in 2002.

Father Lynn Caffoe was sent to a Maryland treatment center in 1991. In a letter to the center, Dyer said that “apart from Father Caffoe’s behavior with minors” the church was also concerned about his failure “to record any of the 60 additional baptisms … and … there have been nearly 100 marriages he has not documented.”

“In the matter of failure to record sacramental events — this is not just unprofessional, but a terribly serious matter in parish life,” Dyer said, adding that Caffoe had told a supervisor the records were “in a box somewhere” but never produced them.

In Ugarte’s case, it was a second complaint from a victim that led to the full-scale canonical investigation of his administration of the sacraments. In the early 1990s, the teenage boy mentioned to church officials that Ugarte had ended each episode of molestation by absolving him of sin.

“What really confused me was the fact that after taking advantage of me, he would place his hand on my forehead and give me a prayer of absolution. While I felt forgiven by God, I still felt dirty,” the victim wrote. He told church officials he had been abused by Ugarte about 15 times. Mahony ultimately dropped the attempt to excommunicate the priest and instead placed him on inactive leave.

The focus on religious rather than sexual transgression appeared to reflect church leaders’ unease with sexual topics and comfort with the clearly spelled-out world of canon law. In a posting on his blog Friday,

Mahony blamed ignorance for his mishandling of abusers.

“Nothing in my own background or education equipped me to deal with this grave problem,” he said. When he got his social work degree, he wrote, “No textbook and no lecture ever referred to the sexual abuse of children.”

Richard Sipe, a former priest and a consultant to victims’ attorneys in clergy sex abuse cases, said most priests learned about sexual deviance in the confessional and were perhaps more apt to consider child sex abuse as a sin to be absolved rather than adjudicated in a court.

“They think, ‘We are the arbiters of sin,'” he said. “That’s why you hear them saying, ‘We had to keep this confidential, we can’t say anything about sins.'”

He also said that the hierarchy may have been reacting to what they perceived as a direct challenge to church authorities.

“This is a problem of power and control,” Sipe said.

Nicholas Cafardi, a professor at Duquesne University and a canon law expert who served as general counsel for the Pittsburgh diocese, said sexual abuse of children had been an ecclesiastical crime since the seventh century but had not been properly treated within the Catholic Church before the mid-1990s.

“When it came to treating sexual abuse of children as an ecclesiastical crime, the church legal system failed,” he said. He added that church officials may have decided to more aggressively crack down on other violations of canon law because of a five-year statute of limitations when it came to sex abuse cases.

The church fought all the way to the state Supreme Court to keep many of the records secret. The archdiocese abandoned a plan make the documents public with the names of the hierarchy blacked out only after media organizations, including The Times, sued in court. The judge sided with the media, but in many of the documents posted online, Mahony’s name and that of his top aide on abuse in the 1980s, Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Curry, are still redacted.

Asked about the redactions, a lawyer for the archdiocese, J. Michael Hennigan, pledged to “fix it.”

“It was our intention to always release the Cardinal and Bishop Curry’s names when they appeared,” he wrote in an email.