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LA church files show a slow abuse response

Officials often did not believe the accusations

Victims and supporters held quilts with portraits of abused children outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Victims and supporters held quilts with portraits of abused children outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

LOS ANGELES — The church files are filled with outrage, pain, and confusion. There are handwritten notes from distraught mothers, accounts of furious phone calls from brothers, and perplexed inquiries from police following up on allegations of priests sexually abusing children.

Over four decades, particularly under Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, parishioners in the nation’s largest Roman Catholic archdiocese repeatedly tried to alert church authorities about abusive priests in their midst, trusting that the church would respond appropriately.

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But the internal personnel files on 124 priests released by the archdiocese under court order on Thursday reveal a very different response: how church officials initially disbelieved them and grew increasingly alarmed over the years, only as multiple victims of the same priest came forward and reported similar experiences. Even then, in some cases, priests were shuttled out of state or out of the country to avoid criminal investigations.

A sampling of the 12,000 pages suggests that Mahony and other top church officials dealt with the accusations of abuse regularly and intimately throughout the last several decades.

It often took years to even reach the realization that a priest could no longer simply be sent to a rehabilitation center and instead must be removed from ministry or even defrocked.

In one case, the Rev. Jose I. Ugarte was accused by a physician of having drugged and raped a young boy in a hotel in Ensenada, Calif., and of taking boys every weekend to a cabin in Big Bear.

But rather than turn Ugarte over to the authorities, Mahony decided to send him back to Spain, made him sign a document promising not to return to the United States without permission for seven years, not to celebrate Mass in public and to seek employment in ‘‘a secular occupation in order to become self-supporting.’’

The current archbishop, Jose H. Gomez, who succeeded Mahony when he retired two years ago, took the unusual if not unprecedented step Thursday night of censuring his predecessor, calling the documents he released late Thursday ‘‘brutal and painful reading’’ and announcing that he was removing him from administrative and public duties. He also accepted the resignation of one of his auxiliary bishops, Thomas Curry.

But in an extraordinary public confrontation between bishops, Mahony adamantly defended himself Friday, posting on his blog a letter he had sent to Gomez. The cardinal insisted that his approach to sexual abuse evolved as he learned more over the years, and that his archdiocese had been in the forefront of reforms to prevent abuse and respond to victims.

Mahony implied that his successor’s censure of him was unexpected and unwarranted: ‘‘Not once over these past years did you ever raise any questions about our policies, practices or procedures in dealing with the problem of clergy sexual misconduct involving minors.’’

Church experts agreed that it was the first time a bishop has publicly condemned another bishop’s failures in the abuse scandal, which has occupied the American bishops for nearly three decades.

They also said Gomez had gone as far as he could under the church’s canon laws to discipline Mahony. He could not, they said, take away his authority to celebrate Mass, but he did order him not to preside at confirmations, a ceremonial role that often keeps retired archbishops in the public eye.

The Los Angeles church files are not unlike other documents unearthed in the church’s long-running abuse scandal in the United States, but it appears to be the largest cache.

In 1977, the mother of a 10-year-old boy wrote to Monsignor John Rawden saying that George Miller, then a priest at parish in Pacoima, had taken her son on a fishing trip and molested him.

The accusation was noted in Miller’s files, but he denied the charges and was presumed to be innocent. Then in 1989 another pastor complained that Miller violated church policy by repeatedly having young boys in his room in the rectory and traveling with them.

Miller was sent to a treatment center run by Catholic therapists in St. Louis in 1996.

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