February 22nd, 2013
07:15 PM ET
By Wayne Drash, CNN
(CNN) – Told by two families that a visiting priest was suspected of molesting their children in 1988, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles did not immediately notify police. Instead, Cardinal Roger Mahony’s right-hand man alerted the priest – a heads-up that allowed him to flee the country for Mexico.
He remained in the priesthood there for another 21 years, allegedly continuing to molest. He has denied the accusations and remains a fugitive.
Newly released church documents show the behind-the-scenes machinations of top officials within the Los Angeles archdiocese making decisions on how to deal with pedophile priests, hindering police investigations and saying, in private, something completely different than what they said in public.
Mahony, one of the most powerful men in the Catholic Church in America at the time, received constant updates on molesting priests and sometimes gave orders on how to deal with cases, including once telling subordinates to deny a police request for a list of altar boys. In at least one case, minute details like retirement benefits were discussed for an admitted molester.
On Saturday, Mahony faced a deposition, answering questions on his handling of the abuse scandal for the first time since the documents' release.
He will journey next to Rome to join the conclave to decide the next pope - a decision that has stirred controversy among advocates of abuse victims and many Catholics.
Anthony De Marco, an attorney who has spent decades representing abuse victims, said the newly released documents surprised even him, because they show “how frequently there was correspondence back and forth between Cardinal Mahony and his top assistants and others after a priest was accused.”
"We know a lot more about his conduct and his words now than we ever have, and I believe that's going to make for a much more thorough deposition," said De Marco, ahead of the deposition he was scheduled to lead.
The archdiocese had fought for years against the documents' being made public. But a judge ordered the release of the material – more than 12,000 pages that detail the extent of sexual abuse within the archdiocese dating back to the 1930s.
“I find these files to be brutal and painful reading,” Archbishop Jose Gomez said in rebuking Mahony, his predecessor.
Still, Gomez supports Mahony on his journey to Rome, where he will join the papal conclave in the Sistine Chapel to choose the next pope. In a letter to priests within the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Gomez asked them “to pray for Cardinal Mahony as he fulfills this sacred duty as Cardinal Elector.”
“I am confident that Cardinal Mahony’s accomplishments and experience in the areas of immigration, social justice, sacred liturgy, and the role of the laity in the Church will serve the College of Cardinals well,” Gomez said.
‘The children are not traumatized’
The case of the Rev. Nicolas Aguilar-Rivera is a microcosm of the larger abuse crisis within the church. It will be at the heart of the deposition.
At a time when the archdiocese was widening its base within the ever-growing Latino community in Southern California, Aguilar-Rivera came to the United States from Mexico, in March 1987. Aguilar-Rivera’s bishop in Mexico had asked the Los Angeles archdiocese to take him in.
The archdiocese welcomed him and found a spot for him in two parishes where parents trusted him with their children, unsupervised.
“He even used his status as a newcomer, his need to learn English, as his ruse for getting children alone," said Terry McKiernan, founder of the church watchdog group BishopAccountability.org. "It’s one of the most extreme combinations of devout Catholic people very open to a priest, very respectful of him, and the callousness and carelessness of hierarchy on both sides of the border about the dangers that this priest posed."
McKiernan added, “This is a man who was a total predator, whose entire life and being seemed to be focused on abusing children.”
Once in the United States, Aguilar-Rivera was first sent to work at Our Lady of Guadalupe, a church with a largely Mexican-American population in East Los Angeles. The bishop for that area, Juan Arzube, Mahony’s vicar general for the San Gabriel Region, had once been accused of molestation and often lobbied on behalf of molesting priests, arguing they deserved to be forgiven, the documents show.
Arzube denied molesting any children himself, but admitted under deposition to being alone with altar boys on many occasions in his rectory apartment. His name was part of a massive civil lawsuit settled with accusers in 2007.
Arzube’s cavalier attitude toward sexual abuse is summed up in a 1980 document in which he lobbied for reinstatement of a priest who had been stripped of his duties, for a second time, because he molested altar boys. “How many priests are there completely guiltless over a period of 10 years?” said Arzube, who died on Christmas Day in 2007 at age 89.
The first inkling of Aguilar-Rivera’s alleged actions in America came on Friday January 8, 1988, when two families – “all trustworthy people” – informed their pastor that they believed their children had been molested. The priest, in turn, told Thomas Curry, the vicar of clergy and Mahony’s second in command.
One incident “happened at Christmas when Father visited the other family,” Curry told Mahony in a letter dated January 10, 1988. “There was a good deal of drinking, and the family asked him to stay. He slept in the room with the children and is supposed to have gotten into bed with one of the boys that night.”
The principal of the boys’ school, Curry noted, had been informed of the accusations and “will be obliged to report it to police.”
But the church didn’t respond by first alerting police. Instead, Curry met with Aguilar-Rivera at the church the day after the allegations were made, a Saturday morning, and informed him that a police investigation would be launched.
“I offered to find a place for him to live until he could make other arrangements, but he volunteered that he would stay with his sister here and leave for Mexico on Monday or Tuesday of this week,” Curry wrote Mahony.
“… He asked that his bishop not be told, and I said that would not be possible. I told him the charges as I knew them, although I did not give the names of the families. He denied all, although he admitted that there was a good deal of drinking at Christmas. I told him that it was likely the accusations would be reported to the police and that he was in a good deal of danger.”
The documents show no suggestion on Curry’s or Mahony’s part that Aguilar-Rivera stay in the United States, cooperate with authorities and face the allegations.
Armed with the information, Aguilar-Rivera skipped town before police were notified on Monday, apparently by the school principal. That day, a detective asked an official within the archdiocese if Aguilar-Rivera intended to flee to Mexico.
“I said I was not sure,” said the official, who is not named in the documents. “I also said that Nicolas knew that it would probably be reported to the police, and that I had explained that some people were bound to report.”
Law enforcement took the allegations seriously and launched an investigation, even accusing the church of not fully cooperating with its efforts – an accusation that would eventually go public in a story in the Los Angeles Times.
One document says that a boy’s relative “had heard” that cops had accused church officials of a cover-up. “The family does not want any trouble,” said the memo dated January 21, 1988. “They want [Aguilar-Rivera] to receive help and that he not be able to do this again.”
The memo added, “The children are not traumatized.”
Five days later, police pushed for a list of altar boys at St. Agatha’s, the second parish where Aguilar-Rivera worked. This request sent archdiocese officials into a frenzy.
Curry wrote Mahony that he believed the church should not cooperate. “We have no evidence that Father Aguilar-Rivera was involved with altar boys as such,” Curry wrote on January 26, 1988. “All the boys involved were members of families he was friendly with in Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the alleged abuse took place while he was visiting these families or while they were visiting him.”
The pastor at St. Agatha, Curry continued, had no knowledge of abuse on his premises and “his concern is that if the police come and interview the boys, the matter will spread around the parish. The parish there is a black-Hispanic one, and he finds his situation as an Anglo pastor a very delicate one.”
“The whole issue of our records is a very sensitive one, and I am reluctant to give any list to the police,” Curry concluded. “We are being friendly but firm.”
At the bottom of the typed letter is a handwritten message from Mahony. “We cannot give such a list for no cause whatsoever,” he scrawled on the page, initializing it with “RMM.”
He underlined “cannot” for extra emphasis.
None of the archdiocese officials were ever charged with obstruction of justice.
Police eventually got the altar boy list, with no help from the archdiocese. Investigators learned the extent of Aguilar-Rivera’s alleged crimes by interviewing boys ranging in age from about 9 to 13.
In all, police said, 26 boys were molested in just nine months, many of them repeatedly. Aguilar-Rivera would eventually be charged in a felony complaint relating to 10 boys, with 19 counts of committing a lewd act with a child.
A Los Angeles Times reporter asked the archdiocese for comment at the time; its public statement stands in direct contrast to what the newly released documents reveal. “He was asked to stay in the country to face the accusations against him, but he chose to leave,” said Joseph Battaglia, the spokesman for the archdiocese.
In the article, police said the church was being less than forthcoming with investigators; a father of two of the alleged victims said simply, “The church shouldn’t be telling lies.”
With the allegations now in the open, the tone of archdiocese officials shifted. Three days later, Curry wrote Aguilar-Rivera’s bishop in Mexico and included a copy of the Los Angeles Times’ story.
“May I request that if you know of the whereabouts of Father Aguilar-Rivera,” Curry said, “you urge him most strongly to return here to answer the allegations that have been made against him.”
While on the run, Aguilar-Rivera even called the home of one of the boys he allegedly molested.
“Don’t you know everybody is looking for you?” the mother said, according to a March 11, 1988, memo.
“For what?” Aguilar-Rivera responded.
Aguilar-Rivera would remain in the priesthood in Mexico - for another 21 years. He would be dogged of more molestation allegations while there.
A civil suit filed in the United States in 2010 by a Mexican citizen alleged Aguilar-Rivera raped him when he was a 12-year-old altar boy in Mexico. The suit alleges Mahony and a Mexican cardinal conspired to hide Aguilar-Rivera between the two countries with full knowledge of his alleged pedophilia, putting an untold number of children at risk. Mahony has denied the allegations.
Aguilar-Rivera was convicted in Mexico in 2003 of a misdemeanor sex abuse charge, but was allowed to walk free while the case was under appeal, according to the Dallas Morning News.
He remains on Mexico’s federal prosecutor’s Most Want List wanted on charges of rape and indecent assault.
Aguilar-Rivera was finally stripped of his duties in 2009 by the Vatican, which approved his removal from “clerical state, a priest who has been accused of the sexual abuse of minors in Mexico and the United States,” the Catholic News Agency reported on July 31, 2009.
Attorney De Marco said it’s disgusting church authorities did nothing to stop him.
“He was able to walk around with the authority of the collar in a country where that authority carries more significance than it does here,” De Marco said. “How could anyone ever justify that 21-year delay? This man molested 26 children in nine months in the United States. How many more were there over 21 years?”
Aguilar-Rivera, now 71, is believed to be alive, a free man in Mexico.
Mahony prays for humiliation
McKiernan, who launched BishopAccountability.org in 2003 to keep track of the widespread church abuse, said the recently released documents show the scope and magnitude of Mahony’s and Curry’s efforts in “intentionally evading the authorities.”
“We didn’t have evidence of that before. It’s actually more stark,” he said. “You can tell from these documents Mahony was trying to keep abused priests away from police. … The document record is a disgraceful one.”
Curry stepped down earlier this month as the regional bishop of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties and “publicly apologized for his decisions while serving as vicar for clergy,” archbishop Gomez said in announcing the resignation.
Mahony has said he has long acknowledged mistakes in the 1980s and that he improved the reporting mechanisms of priestly abuse in the years that followed.
He has recently taken to his personal blog, scribing an array of posts about praying for humiliation.
“… I am for the first time realizing that I should be praying for the very things from which I cringe, the disgrace I abhor, the fool that I seem,” he blogged on February 15.
In a post this week, he asked followers for “your prayers and your encouragements in my own life to handle all of my mistakes, omissions, and commissions as God asks, and as Jesus and Mary lived out: to take in what swirls around me, to hold it, to carry it, to transform it and to give it back as grace, blessing and gift.”
De Marco, the attorney conducting the deposition, said Mahony should feel one emotion far greater than humiliation: shame.
Amid calls for Mahony to not travel to Rome, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles remains steadfast in its support of his trip, saying canon law dictates that he attend.
Catholics United, a liberal-leaning group that pushes for social justice within the church, and SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) said they delivered a petition with close to 10,000 signatures to Saint Charles Borromeo Church in North Hollywood on Saturday, asking for Mahony not to attend the conclave.
"His participation in the conclave would only bring clouds of shame at a time that should bring springs of hope. Cardinal Mahony, please, stay home," said Chris Pumpelly, Catholics United's communications director.
There is no indication he will.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.