Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Seven Years On, Enter the Feds

In a first since the US clergy sex-abuse scandals began their major eruption in 2002, the nation's largest local church -- the 4.2 million-member archdiocese of Los Angeles and its head, Cardinal Roger Mahony -- is under Federal investigation over its response to reports of abusive clergy:
The probe, in which U.S. Atty. Thomas P. O'Brien is personally involved, is aimed at determining whether Mahony, and possibly other church leaders, committed fraud by failing to adequately deal with priests accused of sexually abusing children, said [two law-enforcement] sources, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the investigation.

Authorities are applying a legal theory in an apparently novel way. One federal law enforcement source said prosecutors are seeking to use a federal statute that makes it illegal to "scheme . . . to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services."

In this case, the victims would be parishioners who relied on Mahony and other church leaders to keep their children safe from predatory priests, the source said.

To gain a conviction on such a charge, prosecutors would have to prove that Mahony used the U.S. mail or some form of electronic communication in committing the alleged fraud, the source said.

The inquiry has been underway since at least late last year, the source added.

O'Brien declined to comment, refusing to even confirm the existence of the investigation.

J. Michael Hennigan, who represents Mahony and the archdiocese, confirmed that federal prosecutors had contacted the archdiocese and requested "information about a number of individual priests, at least two of whom are deceased."

He said he was also aware that some witnesses had testified before the panel.

But Hennigan said he has been informed that Mahony is not a target of the inquiry.

"We have been and will continue to be fully cooperative with the investigation," Hennigan said.

Mahony has repeatedly apologized for the church's sex scandal and asked for forgiveness for not acting sooner to remove priests who abused minors. He has declared that the archdiocese handles abuse allegations seriously, notifying police when complaints are made and removing priests from active ministry when allegations are deemed credible.

As the Catholic Church's highest-ranking official in Southern California, Mahony has been dogged for years by allegations of covering up the sexual misconduct of priests....

The district attorney's office launched a grand jury investigation into the archdiocese several years ago, but no charges were filed. District attorney's spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said Wednesday that prosecutors are continuing to look at documents from the archdiocese for evidence of molestation by priests and former priests but that charges against Mahony are "highly doubtful."

Two years ago, the archdiocese agreed to pay $660 million to 508 people who accused priests of sexual abuse. The payout was the largest settlement in a scandal that has involved an estimated 5,000 priests nationwide and cost the Roman Catholic Church more than $2 billion to resolve cases in this country alone.
Absent from November's USCCB meeting in Baltimore, the 72 year-old cardinal -- who's headed the LA church since 1985 -- was received by Pope Benedict in a private audience over recent weeks.