February 3, 2013

Abuse victims’ needs often given scant attention

Files show that Los Angeles archdiocese officials sprang into action over ecclesiastical missteps while ignoring alleged abuse.


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Esther Miller
click image to enlarge

Esther Miller, 54, who says she was abused by the Rev. Michael Nocita, seen in middle picture, holds newly released files on Nocita, at a news conference Friday held by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles.

The Associated Press

Roger Mahony
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Roger Mahony says he was ill-equipped to deal with sex abuse in the Los Angeles archdiocese.

2007 File Photo/The Associated Press

In some cases, the behavior that drew the greatest ire of the hierarchy involved breaking church rather than criminal laws. After first learning of Michael Baker's abuse of boys in 1986, church leaders sent the priest to therapy, then returned him to ministry, believing his word that he would stay away from children.

Yet in 2000, information that Baker was performing baptisms without permission set off a new level of alarm among the church's top officials. They discussed launching a canonical investigation, and for the first time in Baker's checkered years with the church, officials raised the prospect of contacting police.

They mulled getting a restraining order to keep him away from churches.

"Please proceed -- this is very bad!" Mahony scrawled across the bottom of a memo on starting a church investigation into the baptisms. Ultimately, church officials did not seek a restraining order.

Archdiocese officials finally contacted police about Baker's abuse of children when the scandal erupted in 2002.

The Rev. Lynn Caffoe was sent to a Maryland treatment center in 1991. In a letter to the center, Dyer said that "apart from Father Caffoe's behavior with minors," the church was also concerned about his failure "to record any of the 60 additional baptisms ... and ... there have been nearly 100 marriages he has not documented."

"In the matter of failure to record sacramental events -- this is not just unprofessional, but a terribly serious matter in parish life," Dyer said, adding that Caffoe had told a supervisor that the records were "in a box somewhere" but never produced them.

In Ugarte's case, it was a second complaint from a victim that led to the full-scale canonical investigation of his administration of the sacraments. In the early 1990s, the teenage boy mentioned to church officials that Ugarte had ended each episode of molestation by absolving him of sin.

"What really confused me was the fact that after taking advantage of me, he would place his hand on my forehead and give me a prayer of absolution. While I felt forgiven by God, I still felt dirty," the victim wrote. He told church officials he had been abused by Ugarte about 15 times. Mahony ultimately dropped the attempt to excommunicate the priest and instead placed him on inactive leave.

The focus on religious rather than sexual transgressions appeared to reflect church leaders' unease with sexual topics and comfort with the clearly spelled-out world of canon law. In a posting on his blog Friday, Mahony blamed ignorance for his mishandling of abusers.

"Nothing in my own background or education equipped me to deal with this grave problem," he said. When he got his social work degree, he wrote, "No textbook and no lecture ever referred to the sexual abuse of children."

Richard Sipe, a former priest and a consultant to victims' attorneys in clergy sex abuse cases, said most priests learned about sexual deviance in the confessional and were perhaps more apt to consider child sex abuse as a sin to be absolved rather than adjudicated in a court.

"They think, 'We are the arbiters of sin,'" he said. "That's why you hear them saying, 'We had to keep this confidential, we can't say anything about sins.'"

He also said that the hierarchy may have been reacting to what they perceived as a direct challenge to church authorities.

"This is a problem of power and control," Sipe said.

Nicholas Cafardi, a Duquesne University professor and a canon law expert who was general counsel for the Pittsburgh diocese, said sexual abuse of children had been an ecclesiastical crime since the seventh century but had not been properly treated within the Catholic Church before the mid-1990s.

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