LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Cardinal Roger Mahony, the former Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, will be questioned under oath next week as part of a clergy abuse lawsuit just days before he flies to Rome to help select the next pope, attorneys said Friday.
The recently retired head of the nation's largest archdiocese will be deposed Feb. 23 about how he handled a visiting Mexican priest who police believe molested 26 children in the Los Angeles archdiocese during a nine-month stay in 1987. The Rev. Nicolas Aguilar Rivera fled to Mexico in 1988 after parents complained. He has since been defrocked but remains a fugitive, with warrants for his arrest in both the U.S. and Mexico.
The agreement was brokered behind closed doors Friday by a Los Angeles judge. Michael Hennigan, an archdiocese attorney, confirmed the parties agreed to a four-hour deposition with no limitations on the line of questioning.
Mahony has been deposed in civil clergy abuse lawsuits multiple times over the years. Next week's deposition, however, would be the first since the archdiocese released thousands of pages under court order from the confidential personnel files of more than 120 priests accused of sex abuse.
The files show that Mahony and other top archdiocese officials manoeuvred behind the scenes to shield accused priests and protect the church from a growing scandal while keeping parishioners in the dark.
The cardinal was publicly rebuked by his successor, Archbishop Jose Gomez, but on Friday, the archdiocese released a letter Gomez sent to priests urging them to pray for Mahony as he prepares to go to Rome to select the next pope.
The letter indicates that Pope Benedict XVI will hold a farewell gathering with the College of Cardinals — of which Mahony is a member — on Feb. 28. "Cardinal Mahony will be the senior American cardinal from among the 11 cardinal electors from this country," Gomez wrote in his letter.
"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 Cardinal well as it works to discern the will of the Holy Spirit in these deliberations."
Critics called the statement "tone deaf" and one group, Catholics United, said they were launching a petition to demand that Mahony recuse himself from the papal conclave.
Mahony wrote Thursday in a blog post about Lent that he has been publicly humiliated numerous times by people angered by his handling of the clergy abuse crisis. "I could understand the depth of their anger and outrage — at me, at the Church, at about injustices that swirl around us," he wrote.
"Thanks to God's special grace, I simply stood there, asking God to bless and forgive them."
The deposition agreement allows attorneys to question Mahony before he leaves for Rome, said Anthony De Marco, who represents a 35-year-old man who alleges he was abused by Aguilar Rivera.
Church officials warned the priest that parents had complained about abuse but then waited two days to call police — allowing him to flee to Mexico, court papers allege. One memo in Aguilar Rivera's confidential file shows that Mahony later ordered church officials not to turn over a list of altar boys to police who were investigating.
"We cannot give such a list for no cause whatsoever," Mahony added in a handwritten note on a memo from Jan. 26, 1988.
De Marco hopes to get much more out of this deposition of the cardinal than he did in 2007, when he questioned Mahony but had strict limits about what he could ask. At the time, he said, he only had about 40 pages of the priest's 158-page confidential file.
Since then, he has seen nearly 540 pages related to the Aguilar Rivera case, he said in court filings.
"It's a vastly different examination when you have their contemporaneous notes, which we have now," De Marco said outside court Friday. "In that case, we have a whole lot more that we know and we don't have limitations on scope, so we should learn a whole lot more."
The archdiocese agreed to a record-breaking $660 million settlement in 2007 with more than 500 plaintiffs that included a promise to work to release the confidential files of priests accused of sexual abuse. Attorneys for individual accused priests, however, fought the disclosure for more than five years.
The deposition agreement allows De Marco to question Mahony about up to 25 additional priests named in clergy abuse cases, he said.
Hennigan, the archdiocese attorney, declined to comment further.
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