LOS ANGELES -- Retired Roman Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony defended his tattered legacy Friday in a sharply worded letter to his successor, one day after Archbishop Jose Gomez stripped him of his administrative duties and bowed to a court order to release thousands of pages of confidential files on sexually abusive priests.
In a letter posted on his personal blog, Cardinal Mahony challenged Archbishop Gomez for publicly shaming him and said he had developed policies to safeguard children after taking over in 1985, despite being unequipped to deal with the molester priests he inherited.
Cardinal Mahony had apologized two weeks ago after another release of similar files showed that he and other top aides had worked behind the scenes to protect the church from the growing scandal, keep offending clerics out of state and prevent public disclosure of sex crimes committed by priests.
Archbishop Gomez was well aware when he took over in 2011 of the steps that Cardinal Mahony had taken to develop better clergy sex abuse policies and never questioned his leadership until Thursday, the cardinal wrote. "Unfortunately, I cannot return now to the 1980s and reverse actions and decisions made then," he said. "But when I retired as the active archbishop, I handed over to you an archdiocese that was second to none in protecting children and youth."
The letter was remarkable because it revealed infighting between two highly placed church leaders when Roman Catholic hierarchy members rarely break ranks publicly, said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who worked for the Vatican's Washington, D.C., embassy. "It is so rare because they stick together like glue," he said. "The fact that Gomez said what he said, this had to have been cleared by the Vatican; they had to have discussed this with the Vatican. Mahony took the fall."
Archbishop Gomez declined an interview request.
The exchange also indicates the stress that Cardinal Mahony is under following several weeks of damaging disclosures of priest personnel files which revealed that he and a top aide, Thomas Curry, who is now a bishop, maneuvered to shield priests from prosecution, kept parishioners in the dark and failed to call police about sex crimes against minors.
Archbishop Gomez's public rebuke of Cardinal Mahony, 76, for failing to take swift action against abusive priests adds tarnish to a career already overshadowed by the church sex abuse scandal, but it does little to change his role in the larger church. The archbishop also accepted a resignation request from Bishop Curry, who most recently served as auxiliary bishop in charge of the archdiocese's Santa Barbara region.
The fallout will get worse as parishioners themselves begin to read the thousands of pages of documents now posted on the archdiocese website. The files were to be released as part of a record-breaking $660 million settlement with more than 500 victims of sex abuse, but lawyers for the archdiocese and individual priests waged a five-year battle to keep them sealed.
On Thursday, a judge ordered them released without significant redactions after attorneys for The Associated Press and Los Angeles Times intervened. An attorney for the media organizations contacted the archdiocese Friday with concerns that certain documents were improperly redacted.
Several documents in the newly released files echo recurring themes that emerged over the past decade in dioceses nationwide, where church leaders moved problem priests between parishes and didn't call police. Studies commissioned by the U.S. bishops found that more than 4,000 U.S. priests have faced sexual abuse allegations since the early 1950s, in cases involving more than 10,000 children -- mostly boys.
In one instance, a draft of a plan with Cardinal Mahony's name on it calls for sending a molester priest to his native Spain for a minimum of seven years, paying him $400 a month and offering health insurance. In return, the cardinal would agree to write the Vatican and ask them to cancel his excommunication, leaving the door open for him to return as a priest someday.
In another case, Cardinal Mahony resisted turning over a list of altar boys to police who were investigating claims against a visiting Mexican priest who was later determined to have molested 26 boys during a 10-month stint in Los Angeles.
While Archbishop Gomez's decision to strip Cardinal Mahony of his administrative duties and reduce his public role was unprecedented in the American Roman Catholic Church, the cardinal can still act as a priest, keep his rank and remain on a critical Vatican panel that elects the next pope. Victims were quick to point out the contrast between Cardinal Mahony's pared-down local standing and his continued position as a cardinal who travels frequently to Rome and remains in good standing there.
The Vatican declined to comment Friday when asked if the Holy See would follow Archbishop Gomez's lead and take action against Cardinal Mahony.