Fifteen years before the clergy sex abuse scandal came to light, Archbishop Roger M. Mahony and a top advisor plotted to conceal child molestation by priests from law enforcement, including keeping them out of California to avoid prosecution, according to internal Catholic church records released Monday.
The archdiocese's failure to purge pedophile clergy and reluctance to cooperate with law enforcement has previously been known. But the memos written in 1986 and 1987 by Mahony and Msgr. Thomas J. Curry, then the archdiocese's chief advisor on sex abuse cases, offer the strongest evidence yet of a concerted effort by officials in the nation's largest Catholic diocese to shield abusers from police. The newly released records, which the archdiocese fought for years to keep secret, reveal in church leaders' own words a desire to keep authorities from discovering that children were being molested.
In the confidential letters, filed this month as evidence in a civil court case, Curry proposed strategies to prevent police from investigating three priests who had admitted to church officials that they abused young boys. Curry suggested to Mahony that they prevent them from seeing therapists who might alert authorities and that they give the priests out-of-state assignments to avoid criminal investigators.
One such case that has previously received little attention is that of Msgr. Peter Garcia, who admitted preying for decades on undocumented children in predominantly Spanish-speaking parishes. After Garcia's discharge from a New Mexico treatment center for pedophile clergy, Mahony ordered him to stay away from California "for the foreseeable future" in order to avoid legal accountability, the files show. "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," the archbishop wrote to the treatment center's director in July 1986.
The following year, in a letter to Mahony about bringing Garcia back to work in the archdiocese, Curry said he was worried that victims in Los Angeles might see the priest and call police.
"[T]here are numerous — maybe twenty — adolescents or young adults that Peter was involved with in a first degree felony manner. The possibility of one of these seeing him is simply too great," Curry wrote in May 1987.
Garcia returned to the Los Angeles area later that year; the archdiocese did not give him a ministerial assignment because he refused to take medication to suppress his sexual urges. He left the priesthood in 1989, according to the church.
Garcia was never prosecuted and died in 2009. The files show he admitted to a therapist that he had sexually abused boys "on and off"since his 1966 ordination. He assured church officials his victims were unlikely to come forward because of their immigration status. In at least one case, according to a church memo, he threatened to have a boy he had raped deported if he went to police.
The memos are from personnel files for 14 priests submitted to a judge on behalf of a man who claims he was abused by one of the priests, Father Nicholas Aguilar Rivera. The man's attorney, Anthony De Marco, wrote in court papers the files show "a practice of thwarting law enforcement investigations" by the archdiocese. It's not always clear from the records whether the church followed through on all its discussions about eluding police, but in some cases, such as Garcia’s, it did.
Mahony, who retired in 2011, has apologized repeatedly for errors in handling abuse allegations. In a statement Monday, he apologized once again and recounted meetings he's had with about 90 victims of abuse.
"I have a 3 x 5 card for every victim I met with on the altar of my small chapel. I pray for them every single day," he wrote. "As I thumb through those cards I often pause as I am reminded of each personal story and the anguish that accompanies that life story."
"It remains my daily and fervent prayer that God's grace will flood the heart and soul of each victim, and that their life-journey continues forward with ever greater healing," he added. "I am sorry."
Curry did not return calls seeking comment. He currently serves as the archdiocese's auxiliary bishop for Santa Barbara.
The confidential files of at least 75 more accused abusers are slated to become public in coming weeks under the terms of a 2007 civil settlement with more than 500 victims. A private mediator had ordered the names of the church hierarchy redacted from those documents, but after objections from The Times and the Associated Press, a Superior Court judge ruled that the names of Mahony, Curry and others in supervisory roles should not be blacked out.
Garcia's was one of three cases in 1987 in which top church officials discussed ways they could stymie law enforcement. In a letter about Father Michael Wempe, who had acknowledged using a 12-year-old parishioner as what a church official called his "sex partner," Curry recounted extensive conversations with the priest about potential criminal prosecution.
"He is afraid ... records will be sought by the courts at some time and that they could convict him," Curry wrote to Mahony. "He is very aware that what he did comes within the scope of criminal law."
Curry proposed Wempe could go to an out-of-state diocese "if need be." He called it "surprising" that a church-paid counselor hadn't reported Wempe to police and wrote that he and Wempe "agreed it would be better if Mike did not return to him."
Perhaps, Curry added, the priest could be sent to "a lawyer who is also a psychiatrist" thereby putting "the reports under the protection of privilege."
Curry expressed similar concerns to Mahony about Father Michael Baker, who had admitted his abuse of young boys during a private 1986 meeting with the archbishop.
In a memo about Baker's return to ministry, Curry wrote, "I see a difficulty here, in that if he were to mention his problem with child abuse it would put the therapist in the position of having to report him … he cannot mention his past problem."