In 1998, jurors awarded $30 million to two brothers who had been molested by Father Oliver O'Grady, a priest who served under Roger Mahony in the early 1980s during his tenure as bishop of Stockton. Mahony had to testify in the case, and his testimony went disastrously. As one juror told the press afterwards, "I didn't believe Mahony.... I think it is pretty obvious that none of us [jurors] did."
Not wanting to go through an ordeal like that again and fearing a blizzard of new details about his derelictions of duty, Mahony settled with victims in July of this year on the eve of a Los Angeles trial in which he was scheduled as the first witness. The $660-million settlement left many Los Angeles Catholics and priests flabbergasted and furious. In order to avoid testifying, "everyone feels that he gave away the store," said one priest to me.
In an apparent bid to win sympathy from these priests, Mahony, it was reported earlier this month, informed them during their annual meeting that not long after the July settlement he got beaten up on a street near the Los Angeles cathedral by a man upset over the abuse scandal.
"He said he was walking to the post office or the store and that a man recognized him and started shouting obscenities about the abuse," a priest told the Los Angeles Times. "Then the man came up and punched him and he fell to the ground. We were all shocked. Nobody had heard anything about it."
MAHONY'S TALE OF WOE, however, backfired, generating less sympathy than puzzlement: Who was the assailant? And why didn't the cardinal call the police? It was apparently a pretty severe beating. According to Father Joseph Shea of Glendale, speaking to the AP, Mahony was "hospitalized" after it and spent weeks recovering.
The Los Angeles police department, curious about the disgruntled chap on the loose, called Mahony after the story appeared in the press. But Mahony said that he didn't want them to pursue an investigation of the crime -- a small reminder of his signature reluctance to contact law enforcement. According to Shea, Mahony didn't call the assault in because "he felt he could offer it up in reparation for the sins of others," which makes no sense since reporting a crime and "offering up" pain are not at odds.
In the past, cardinals endured physical attacks for courageously defending the faith; these days it appears they are haplessly beaten up for malfeasance.
Mahony is not the only American bishop licking his wounds. So, too, is Donald Pelotte, the bishop of Gallup, New Mexico, who recently announced a leave of absence, due to injuries from what he claims was a fall at his home this summer but which the New Mexico press suspects was a brutal altercation. According to the AP, Pelotte spent part of the second half of this year "recovering at his private Florida residence."
In early December, as Mahony was explaining the mysterious assault, more scandal dripped from L.A.'s endless abuse cases. Michael Stephen Baker, who once belonged to Mahony's inner circle, plead guilty to abusing two boys. (Journalist Ron Russell reported in 2002 that "Baker and Mahony were especially close, and that Baker was among an elite number of prelates privileged to spend weekends with the cardinal at his cabin near Yosemite National Park.")
The details that made this prosecution possible came from the personnel files Mahony was forced to release this year -- records which had cleared Baker of one of the incidents in question and which managed even to get the name of a victim wrong, confusing investigators for months.
According to the Times, when police investigators did finally manage to find the victim, he told them that Baker had "befriended him as a boy and molested him repeatedly."
At one point, "Baker performed a gruesome, secret ceremony at the altar of St. Columbkille's in which the priest mingled their blood and proclaimed them 'joined for life.'" Sheriff's detectives also found that, contrary to the church report, "the victim and his mother and sister were never questioned by church officials at any time."
Baker had told Mahony many years ago of his penchant for pedophilia. "Should we call the police now?" one of Mahony's lawyers asked after this disclosure. (Baker told this story to the Los Angeles Times.) Mahony's response: "No, no, no."
George Neumayr is editor of Catholic World Report and press critic for California Political Review.
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