LOS ANGELES -- The retired archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, and other high-ranking clergymen in the archdiocese worked quietly to keep evidence of child molesting away from law enforcement officials and shield abusive priests from criminal prosecution more than a decade before the scandal became public, according to confidential church records.
The documents, filed in court as part of lawsuit against the archdiocese and posted online by The Los Angeles Times on Monday, offer the clearest glimpse yet of how the archdiocese dealt with abusive priests in the decades before the scandal broke, including Cardinal Mahony's personal involvement in covering up their crimes.
Rather than defrocking priests and contacting the police, the archdiocese sent priests who had molested children to out-of-state treatment facilities, in large part because therapists in California were legally obligated to report any evidence of child abuse to the police, the files make clear.
In 1986, Cardinal Mahony wrote to a New Mexico treatment center where one abusive priest, Msgr. Peter Garcia, had been sent.
"I believe that if Monsignor Garcia were to reappear here within the archdiocese we might very well have some type of legal action filed in both the criminal and civil sectors," Cardinal Mahony wrote.
Monsignor Garcia admitted to abusing more than a dozen young boys, most of them from families of illegal immigrants, since he was ordained in 1966, and in at least one case he threatened to have a boy he had molested deported if he talked about it, according to documents filed in court.
He was never criminally prosecuted, and has since died.
In a 1987 letter regarding the Rev. Michael Baker, who had also been sent for treatment in New Mexico after admitting that he had abused young boys, Msgr. Thomas J. Curry wrote to Cardinal Mahony that "he is very aware that what he did comes within the scope of the criminal law in California."
"It is surprising the counselor he attended in California did not report him, and we agreed it would be better if Mike did not return to him," the letter continued. It would be decades before Father Baker was convicted of sexually abusing children.
In a written statement released on Monday, Cardinal Mahony, who took over the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1985 and retired in 2011, apologized to the victims of the sexual abuse.
"Various steps toward safeguarding all children in the church began here in 1987 and progressed year by year as we learned more about those who abused and the ineffectiveness of so-called 'treatments' at the time," the statement said. "Nonetheless, even as we began to confront the problem, I remained naïve myself about the full and lasting impact these horrible acts would have on the lives of those who were abused by men who were supposed to be their spiritual guides."
Cardinal Mahony said he came to understand that impact only two decades later, when he met with almost 100 victims of sexual abuse by priests under his charge. He now keeps an index card for each one of those victims, praying for each one every day, he said in the statement.
In a phone interview, J. Michael Hennigan, a lawyer for the archdiocese, said that the documents represented the "beginnings of the awakening of the archdiocese of these kinds of problems," and that the lessons learned in the intervening decades helped shape the current policy, under which all accusations of abuse are reported to the police and all adults who supervise children are fingerprinted and subjected to background checks.
Lawyers for some of the priests accused of abuse fought in court to keep the documents and many others confidential. But over the coming weeks, many more church records will also be released as part of a settlement between some of the victims and the archdiocese.
Ray Boucher, a lawyer representing some of the plaintiffs in those cases, said the files released on Monday were "particularly damning," because they showed the "wanton disregard for the health and safety of children, and a decision by the highest members of the church to put its self-interest and the interest of abusive priests ahead of those of children."
Mr. Boucher added, "I think when the full light is shown, the public will begin to understand just how deep a problem this is."nation
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.