Cardinal Roger Mahony walks through the Basilica Santi Quattro Coronati in Rome in 2005. By then his attention was largely devoted to dealing with clergy sex abuse allegations in the L.A. Archdiocese. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

For Roger Mahony, clergy abuse cases were a threat to agenda

From the start of his tenure as the leader of L.A.'s Catholics, Roger Mahony had ambitious plans for the archdiocese. But clergy molestation claims were vying for his attention.

December 01, 2013

A year after arriving in Los Angeles, the youngest archbishop in the U.S. Catholic Church had a schedule and an agenda befitting a presidential candidate.


Roger Mahony raced around the city in a chauffeured sedan, exhorting labor leaders to support immigrant rights and rallying hundreds against a proposed prison in Boyle Heights.

Where his predecessors had talked up praying the rosary, Mahony touted his positions on nuclear disarmament and Middle East peace, porn on cable TV and AIDS prevention. No issue seemed outside his purview: When an earthquake struck El Salvador, he cut a $100,000 check. When a 7-year-old went missing in South Pasadena, he wrote her Protestant parents a consoling letter.

Reporters took notes and the influential took heed. The mayor, the governor, business executives and millionaires recognized a rising star and sought his company.

Among the thousands of papers that crossed his desk in September 1986 was a handwritten letter.

"During priests' retreat ... you provided us with an invitation to talk to you about a shadow that some of us might have," Father Michael Baker wrote. "I would like to take you up on that invitation."

The note would come to define Mahony's legacy more than any public stance he took or powerful friend he made.

In the child sex abuse scandal that has shaken the Catholic Church, Mahony is a singular figure.

Cardinal Roger Mahony prays in his residence in 1986. (Los Angeles Times)

He became the leader of America's largest archdiocese at the very moment the church was being forced to confront clergy molestation. Because he was just 49 when he took office, he was in power for the entire arc of the abuse crisis. Long after peers had retired or died, Mahony was around to face the public's wrath. Because of the unique way abuse lawsuits played out in California, his files on molesters became public while in most other corners of the church, they remain under lock and key.

The archdiocese's confidential personnel files, released this year as part of a massive settlement of civil lawsuits, provide the most detailed accounting yet of how clergy abuse was handled in a U.S. diocese. Along with sworn testimony by Mahony and his advisors and interviews with church officials, victims' families and others, the nearly 23,000 pages maintained by the archdiocese and various religious orders suggest a man who was troubled over abuse but more worried about scandal — and how it might derail the agenda he had for himself and his church.

When Roger Mahony was tapped in 1985 to lead Los Angeles' 3 million Catholics, he was bishop of the sleepy Stockton diocese where the faithful numbered just 135,000.

Some might have been nervous about taking on such a visible, high-pressure role, but not Mahony. The North Hollywood native enjoyed the spotlight, whether it was marching with Cesar Chavez in the 1970s or jumping into the nuclear arms debate from the unlikely perch of Stockton. L.A. offered Mahony a national platform.

He began changing the way the archdiocese was run. He stocked the chancery with computers and laser printers and hired women and minorities for key positions.

He seemed almost temperamentally unable to see a problem and not do something. When a cathedral fire alarm stopped working, Mahony found a screwdriver and rewired it. When the clock was blinking the wrong time in an aide's car, he quickly reset it. On vacation at his mountain cabin in the Sierra, he never let friends wash the dishes — he could do it faster and better.

When it came to the big issues of the day, he wanted his church to move just as nimbly.

He set out to redefine its relationship with secular L.A., inserting himself into debates on an array of issues. Whether it was teen pregnancy or Soviet aggression, if Reagan-era America was talking about it, Mahony was too.

Latino concerns had been important to him since the days when he worked on his family's chicken ranch in North Hollywood, side by side with Mexicans in the country illegally. Within months of taking office in L.A., he had rolled out his "Latino plan" — a strategy for better serving the archdiocese's 2 million Latino Catholics. He quickly became a prominent proponent of an immigration bill that would grant amnesty to millions.

"My theory is that if we make the wrong decision, we can always abandon it or change it, or fine-tune it," Mahony told The Times early in his tenure. "But taking forever to ever get to the decision, to me, that is one of the faults of the church over the centuries."

Behind closed doors, another issue was vying for his attention.

Former Catholic priest Michael Baker in 1974. (Archdiocese of Los Angeles)

Had they met under different circumstances, Mahony might have thought Father Michael Baker an ideal priest for the archdiocese he was trying to build. Like the archbishop, Baker was a Southern California native fluent in Spanish as well as English. His bright blue eyes, charisma and familiarity with Mexican culture made him popular in the Latino parishes so important to the archbishop.

But what brought Baker to Mahony's office in December 1986 was a sin gnawing at his conscience. For close to a decade, the priest said, he had molested two boys.

That a priest could molest a child would no longer have surprised Mahony. Less than a month after he started work in L.A., the first letter regarding an abuser priest landed on his desk. Two days later, he was dealing with the case of a second molester priest.

Baker was the ninth.

For decades, such allegations had made their way to the archdiocese's headquarters. But for the most part, the men who wore the miter before Mahony did little in response. Letters from irate parents gathered dust in file cabinets. Priests were quietly transferred.

Mahony knew the larger church was just starting to confront clergy abuse. In 1985, after a molester priest caused a scandal in Louisiana, U.S. bishops held a closed-door session on abuse at their annual conference.

Mahony and other bishops subsequently received a lengthy report warning of the legal and public relations ramifications of abuse and offering tips for dealing with such cases. The report, written by a priest, a psychiatrist and a lawyer, presented the topic in a risk-analysis manner appealing to pragmatists like Mahony.

"Our dependence in the past on Roman Catholic judges and attorneys protecting the Diocese and clerics is GONE," the report said.

Among the recommendations was that bishops rely on lawyers' advice. Not long after Mahony arrived, he consulted the archdiocese's longtime attorney about Cristobal Garcia, a priest accused of molesting an altar boy and then fleeing to his native Philippines.

The lawyer, J.J. Brandlin, was unequivocal: "Be sure that someone has reported the matter to the authorities," he urged. "The law carries a heavy burden."

The advice went unheeded. Brandlin stepped down shortly thereafter, and in his place Mahony hired the law firm of prominent venture capitalist Richard Riordan, a devout Catholic.

About the same time, Mahony took another step recommended in the report: He held a seminar for all 1,100 of his priests about pedophilia. He concluded the session with a direct appeal to any child molesters in the audience.

Pope John Paul II tours Chinatown with Mahony during a two-day visit to L.A. in 1987. Planning for it was among issues preoccupying the cardinal a year earlier. (Los Angeles Times)

"It's really helpful if you come forward so we can get you help," he said.

Only Baker responded.

It was Christmas week 1986. The chancery had begun to empty out for the holidays, but Mahony was working as hard as ever. The amnesty bill had passed, and the archdiocese was setting up centers to help register 250,000 immigrants for citizenship. The L.A. leg of Pope John Paul II's summer visit, the first time a pope had ever set foot in California, needed planning. And in the archbishop's corner office, Baker wanted to unburden himself about two boys he had molested for years.

What happened? Mahony asked. "Oh, just touching," Baker said.

Who were they? Mahony asked. Immigrant boys who'd left the area, Baker said. He didn't know their last names or where they could be found, he said. For all he knew, they might be back in Mexico.

The experts' report on abuse had mentioned cases like Baker's. Molesters so rarely self-disclosed that when a priest did, the bishop "should 'reward' him with his support," it said.

The archbishop did not raise his voice, the priest would later recall. He did not press Baker for the boys' identities or ask if there were more victims.

"I was glad I brought it up," Baker told The Times in 2002.

Mahony typed up a detailed account of the conversation and placed it in the priest's confidential file, meticulous record-keeping that distinguished the archbishop from his predecessors.

By the time the holidays were over, Baker had been sent to a New Mexico treatment center for accused pedophile priests. Police weren't notified. Victims weren't contacted.

It would become a familiar pattern.

By 1988, the sensational McMartin preschool trials, in which the staff of a Manhattan Beach day-care center was accused of abusing dozens of pupils, had made child molestation a water-cooler topic. But few in L.A. were aware that the archdiocese had its own serious problem. Barely two years in office, Mahony had dealt with 14 suspected abusers.

Surrounded by paperwork, Mahony writes in his diary in 1986. (Los Angeles Times)

He had done so with utmost discretion. Chancery secretaries knew to lower their voices when taking calls from victims' parents. At Riordan's law firm, many partners didn't even know that their colleagues were working on the cases. Junior staffers whispered about it.

"We called them Father Fondle cases," recalled Lauren Hunter, then a paralegal at the firm. Riordan said in an interview he was not aware his firm handled the clergy abuse cases.


Mahony and his aides insisted on secrecy even when lives were at risk. In one case, the archdiocese was informed that a man dying of AIDS had been having sex with a parish priest, who in turn was abusing high school students. At the time, the average life expectancy after an AIDS diagnosis was 18 months. Yet church officials did nothing to alert the priest or the students. "People involved in these activities usually are aware of these matters," a Mahony aide wrote.

Mahony's schedule brought him in regular contact with the police chief and the district attorney, but he never mentioned the accused abusers in his ranks or reported them to law enforcement. In private memos, he discussed with aides how to stymie police.

Mahony and his aides selected therapists who they knew wouldn't report abuse to authorities, and urged suspected molesters to remain out of state to avoid police investigations and lawsuits. Mahony ordered one priest who had admitted preying on as many as 20 children to stay away from California "for the foreseeable future" to avoid prosecution.

Inside the Los Angeles Police Department's Sexually Exploited Child unit, detectives had come to think of clergy cases as a footrace against the chancery. When a tip about a priest came in, the starting gun went off.

"Even if it was at the end of the day and we were supposed to go home, we knew we were at the starting post," said Det. Dale Barraclough, who spent 20 years in the unit.

LAPD policy was to notify the archdiocese when an investigation was underway. But once the church was informed, Barraclough said, "we knew that the suspect, 99% sure, that he was going to be out of the country or out of state."

Detectives begged parents not to inform the church and held off telling their own supervisors, Barraclough said in an interview, buying time to talk to witnesses, track down other victims, and seize toys and photos from rectories.

Officers often lost the race. In early 1988, police learned that a visiting priest allegedly molested several boys over nine months before fleeing to his native Mexico. In an effort to identify all the potential victims, detectives asked for a list of altar boys at two L.A. parishes.

Mahony was adamant that the roster not be provided: "We cannot give such a list for no cause whatsoever," he wrote to aides in an internal memo.

Det. Gary Lyon became fed up and poured out the story of Father Nicolas Aguilar-Rivera to a Times reporter. Lyon told the newspaper that church officials knew the priest was leaving the country but contacted authorities only after he was gone. Now, Lyon complained, they were preventing police from identifying the children who may have been harmed.

The story ran on the front page. It was not the type of headline Mahony was used to. He knew the power of the media in spreading the church's message and building his influence. He made sure photographers were on the tarmac when he delivered medical supplies to El Salvador. He called KNX Radio from his car phone whenever he spotted a traffic accident.

They lied as bad as any thug or ex-con I've ever come across on the street.”

— Det. Gary Lyon

When the story about Aguilar-Rivera broke, Mahony was preparing to fly to Washington for a high-profile address to Congress on nuclear disarmament. He had told his press office to expect a lot of calls about his speech, but in the wake of the Aguilar-Rivera story, the media weren't interested.

"I do appreciate your advance copies of speeches you will be giving before Senate committees," an aide wrote to the archbishop. "But to date I have received no calls inquiring after your testimony. I have received more than a few calls from the media about the Fr. Aguilar case."

In the wake of the negative press, Mahony cleared his schedule to deal with the case full time. He implored bishops across Mexico for help in tracking down the fugitive priest, and arranged a meeting with Lyon and his supervisor to clear the air.

During that meeting, Mahony sat quietly as one of his attorneys and an aide accused the police of misrepresenting the archdiocese to the press. Lyon recalled church representatives saying: We never refused to turn over the altar boy lists. We were fully cooperative.

"They lied as bad as any thug or ex-con I've ever come across on the street," Lyon recalled in an interview. "They were more interested in saving the reputation of the church than helping us find these young victims."

A few years earlier, the same LAPD unit and the city attorney's office had gone after the L.A. Unified School District for failing to report suspected child molestation, filing criminal charges against a school administrator. But as convinced as detectives were at the time that the church was covering up abuse, they didn't pursue an investigation of Mahony or anyone else in the archdiocese.

Meanwhile, the archbishop's influence was growing. In 1991, Pope John Paul II elevated him to cardinal. Accompanying him to Rome for the ceremony was a group of powerful Angelenos, including future mayor Riordan. He had become a confidant of the archbishop, raising millions for the church and even spearheading the purchase of a helicopter for Mahony.

In the city's worst moment of crisis, the 1992 riots, Mahony provided a voice of moral authority that politicians couldn't. He appeared live on six television stations to plead for calm and went to still-smoldering Watts to urge looters to "clear their conscience" by returning stolen merchandise. Many did.

St. Vibiana Cathedral, shown in 1986, was damaged in the '94 Northridge earthquake. Mahony soon announced plans for a massive, modern replacement. (Los Angeles Times)

Archbishop Roger Mahony speaks at a Board of Supervisors meeting to discuss the plight of the homeless in 1986. (Los Angeles Times)

By this time, Mahony had dealt with close to 40 accused abusers. He sent priests to long stays at treatment centers, pored over memos detailing their progress and, upon their return, arranged jobs designed to keep them away from children. To the archbishop, each case represented a problem crossed off his list.

In the early 1990s, however, signs began to emerge that his approach wasn't working.

Lynn Caffoe, a Redondo Beach priest who had allegedly taken hundreds of boys into his bedroom, convinced church officials that a nine-month stint in therapy had him "in a much better space."

"Excellent progress," Mahony wrote.

Months later, as the archbishop was about to clear Caffoe to return to ministry, a boy came forward to say the priest had been molesting him the entire time. Another abuser priest, Gerald Fessard, had been cleared by a psychologist as being "in no danger of acting out" after treatment; but after he returned to ministry in Temple City, parishioners said he was talking to children about sex and touching them inappropriately.

Mahony revised his approach. He updated the archdiocese policy so allegations triggered automatic church investigations. He challenged recommendations from Catholic treatment centers, ultimately barring many abusers from returning to ministry. He tried to persuade reluctant Vatican officials to keep priests who had allegedly molested in L.A. from ever working with children anywhere. He directed that when victims approached the church, they were listened to and offered therapy. He named lay people — including a retired judge, the parents of victims and a psychologist — to a new board to review molestation allegations.

Yet the archbishop stopped short of any steps that might make the sins of priests public. The new advisory board, for example, was provided only vague descriptions of cases.

Alleged perpetrators were referred to as "Father X," and the parishes involved were never identified. Board members were never told whether Mahony followed their advice.

None of them mentioned calling police.

Estid Dado, 6, gets a visit from the cardinal in the hospital after being injured in the 1992 Los Angeles riots. (Los Angeles Times)

Before dawn on Jan. 17, 1994, a fault line running beneath the San Fernando Valley shook Southern California and set the stage for a vivid display of Mahony's power in the city. The Northridge earthquake cracked the bell tower at St. Vibiana's, the archdiocese's small, venerable downtown cathedral, and Mahony soon announced plans for a massive, modern replacement.

He secured a county-owned parking lot as a building site. To pay for the $189-million project, he turned to his Rolodex, extracting huge donations from the city's wealthiest and most prominent residents, Catholic and not.

In those years, it seemed unimaginable that anything could undermine his power.

But seven miles from the new cathedral site, at St. Columbkille's in South L.A., Michael Baker had returned to the ministry. The priest had signed a contract vowing to stay away from children and agreed that a trusted Mahony aide, Msgr. Tim Dyer, would monitor him in the rectory.

On a May afternoon in 1996, Dyer went home from work early and climbed the stairs toward the priests' bedrooms. Suddenly, Baker emerged from that direction with a teenage boy at his side and barreled past Dyer. Aghast, the monsignor threw down the books he was carrying and raced after them. By the time Dyer reached the bottom step, Baker and the teen were outside.

Dyer peered through the rectory's Venetian blinds just in time to see Baker's car screech away, with the boy in the passenger seat.

The dedication service for the cathedral was witnessed by a representative of Pope John Paul II, 11 U.S. cardinals and nearly a thousand other clerics. (Los Angeles Times)

As clergy abuse scandal erupts, Roger Mahony put in spotlight

As the clergy abuse scandal unfolds nationwide, Roger Mahony's moral authority — and his legacy — erodes.

December 02, 2013

On a brilliant Sunday afternoon, Cardinal Roger Mahony stood before thousands jammed into a vacant lot overlooking the 101 Freeway. The archbishop, resplendent in gold and crimson, told the crowd that the cathedral that would rise from the dirt would stand for centuries as a monument to the church's stature in Los Angeles.

"This revered ground is blessed and dedicated to God for the ages to come," he declared. Three hundred doves fluttered into a cloudless sky, a choir of 800 sang and the faithful roared their approval.

Cardinal Roger Mahony burns incense at a Mass celebrating the opening of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

In 1997, a dozen years into his tenure, Mahony was at the height of his power. He was a national advocate for immigrants in the country illegally, and his voice carried sway on issues including welfare reform and the racial tensions arising from the O.J. Simpson trial. Residents — Catholic and others — consistently voted him among the region's most popular public figures in opinion polls.

But in a locked cabinet in the archdiocese headquarters, files bulged with evidence that Mahony was covering up sexual abuse of children.

Manila folders alphabetized by abusers' names contained letters from distraught parents, graphic confessions from priests, and memos between the archbishop and his aides discussing how to stymie police investigations and avoid lawsuits.

To Mahony, the meticulous files were a record of problems solved and scandals averted. In the years to come, however, it would become increasingly hard — and finally impossible — to keep the problem of sexual abuse locked away.

Revelations that he had shielded pedophiles eventually undercut the moral authority that had made him one of America's most important Catholic leaders. One by one, people who had revered and trusted him would turn away. He lost the victims and their parents first, then his aides, the press, the political establishment, lay Catholics and ultimately the church he'd worked so hard to protect.

From early in his time as archbishop, Mahony did more than his predecessors to address sexual abuse by priests. For the most part, he didn't ignore allegations or shuffle untreated molesters from parish to parish. He insisted on inpatient therapy and placed returning priests in jobs where they had little access to children.


"Nothing pains me more than to learn of such misconduct on the part of anyone in the official service of the Church," he wrote to a victim's parents.

But he drew the line at steps that would acknowledge abuse cases publicly. By the mid-1990s, that insistence on secrecy was turning loyal Catholics like Paul and Sue Griffith against Mahony.

When the Long Beach couple learned that a priest had molested their son, they trusted Mahony to handle it appropriately. At the chancery, their son poured out his pain about the years of abuse he'd suffered, starting in seventh grade. "It's unbelievable how a grown man could be attracted to a kid and destroy him," the 21-year-old told church officials.

Mahony sent Father Ted Llanos to a church-run facility in Maryland and planned to explain his absence as the result of "administrative stress." Involving the police, a Mahony aide told the Griffiths, wouldn't help anyone.

In the past, that might have sufficed. But with molestation having become a staple of news reports and talk shows, families like the Griffiths were more willing to challenge the church.

"I view your ... announcement as a cover-up or at least managing the news to execute damage control," Paul Griffith wrote in a letter to the church. His son had been brave, he wrote, and now the archdiocese was failing to show "an equal amount of courage to be truthful."

Church officials went ahead with an announcement saying Llanos was leaving because of "issues in his life." But an anonymous call led to a police investigation and at least 15 other alleged victims came forward. Criminal charges against Llanos and extensive press coverage followed. Mahony met with the Griffiths at the chancery. He apologized for the pain Llanos had caused and assured the couple that the priest was an aberration.

The meeting didn't assuage the Griffiths. They criticized Mahony in media interviews and editorials and helped their son sue the archdiocese.

Sue Griffith, recalling the meeting with Mahony in an interview with The Times, said the cardinal had claimed that during his tenure only one other church employee molested a child: a school janitor.

From the priest abuse files: Family members write to the church

It was Holy Week, and Mahony's calendar was jammed. In addition to the rites leading up to Easter 2000, the cardinal was working around the clock with city leaders to end a strike by 8,500 janitors. Presidential candidate Al Gore was also in town and wanted to meet.

That Tuesday afternoon, Father Michael Baker walked into archdiocese headquarters. Fourteen years earlier, he had confided to the cardinal that he'd molested two boys for nearly a decade. After a stint in treatment, he was allowed back into limited ministry.

Now, he was asking to see Mahony's top aide, nervously clutching a stack of papers. Baker handed the papers to Msgr. Richard Loomis without explanation.

It was a draft lawsuit from an attorney for two new victims — brothers then living in Arizona — accusing Baker of molesting them over 15 years in California and Arizona. The attorney gave the church and Baker one week to compensate the victims or face a lawsuit. Loomis didn't even read to the end before removing Baker from the ministry. Pack your bags, he told the priest.

Mahony had quietly settled claims before, many for little or no money. But to prevent an airing of Baker's misdeeds in a public courtroom, he approved a settlement on a different order: $1.25 million.

The payout stopped the suit, but not Baker. Mahony barred him from acting as a priest in public, but church officials soon learned he was still wearing his clerical collar and ingratiating himself with families by performing baptisms.

Those closest to Mahony realized that after years of trying to handle Baker quietly, they had reached a breaking point.

Loomis and the archdiocese's lawyer, John McNicholas, told the cardinal that for the safety of the community, the faithful must be alerted. They proposed vaguely worded parish announcements about Baker's "past inappropriate behavior with minors" in another state. But even that was too much for Mahony.

We could open up yet another fire storm — and it takes us years to recover from those.”

— Cardinal Roger Mahony

"There is no alternative to public announcements at all the Masses in 15 parishes???" Mahony emailed Loomis. "Wow — that really scares the daylights out of me!!"

Announcements would distract from all that the cardinal was trying to accomplish: a new immigration amnesty, a push against the death penalty and more funding for parochial education. Just the week before, he had taken presidential hopeful George W. Bush to South L.A. to show him how Catholic schools were helping poor children.

"We could open up yet another fire storm — and it takes us years to recover from those," he told Loomis.

No announcement was made. Later that year, Baker was defrocked. In the past, Mahony's aides had not questioned the way he dealt with abuse, but Loomis couldn't contain his anger in this case. He told a colleague that how Mahony had handled Baker was "immoral and unethical" — and shortsighted.

"Someone else will end up owning the Archdiocese of Los Angeles," he wrote in a memo. "We've stepped back 20 years and are being driven by the need to cover-up and to keep the presbyterate [priests] & public happily ignorant rather than the need to protect children."

Mahony had hoped to spend Christmas 2001 with U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But the Army said it was too dangerous, and he ended up celebrating Mass on an aircraft carrier off Tokyo.

He was still shaking off jet lag when the Boston Globe published the first in a series of stories that would shake the Catholic faith. "Church allowed abuse by priest for years," the headline read. The priest was Father John Geoghan, and the disgraced archbishop was Cardinal Bernard Law.

But 3,000 miles away, Mahony recognized a threat to his own reputation. By this time, he had quietly dealt with at least 47 clergymen accused of abuse.

He quietly drew up a list of all accused abusers still working in the archdiocese. There were seven. One by one, he summoned them to the chancery and informed them their careers were over.

But after Boston, the world had changed. Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks publicly demanded the names of abusers. Detectives, thwarted on church cases for decades, set up a hotline for victims. When they learned about a possible molester priest in Azusa, they dispatched at least 15 investigators to interview altar boys.

Talk radio hosts whom Mahony had once charmed by calling in traffic reports pilloried him. When emails in which he expressed fear of a criminal investigation were leaked, KFI-AM read them live on the air from outside the cathedral.

His press office embraced a phrase once unimaginable for the archbishop: "No comment." When he finally spoke to reporters, he joined the critics piling on Law but admitted few mistakes of his own.

"I don't know how I could face people," Mahony said about his Boston counterpart. "I don't know how I could walk down the main aisle of the church myself comfortably, interiorly, if I had been [guilty] of grave neglect."

Top: Jim Robertson hugs Rita Milla after a 2007 settlement to resolve claims of abuse against 221 priests, brothers, lay teachers and other church employees spanning 70 years. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Bottom: Esther Miller, holding photos of other victims, breaks down while talking in February about sexual abuse by a priest she said she suffered as a girl. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Top: Dominic Zamora, right, is shown on the day in 2007 that ex-priest Michael Baker pleaded guilty to molestation. Zamora is the boy shown in the photo with Baker. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Bottom: Michael Duran wipes tears before a press conference last March announcing a settlement in his and others' cases against the archdiocese. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

With each new headline, more victims stepped forward. Some of the accused priests were long dead, others long gone from L.A. Some were beloved, others the subject of rumors for decades. Mahony lamented that to be a priest was to be suspected of abuse.

Late one Friday night, he picked up his phone and called the LAPD. He was patched through to Det. Dale Barraclough, who was getting ready for bed.

The detective was astounded, he said in an interview. In two decades of Barraclough's investigating child sex abuse cases, Mahony had been a distant adversary who sent aides and lawyers to frustrate investigations. Now the cardinal was calling him.

There's a new abuse allegation, Mahony said. It involves me.

A schizophrenic woman had accused Mahony of molesting her in 1970 at a Fresno high school. He told Barraclough he didn't know the woman. The detective thanked him and typed up a report. Fresno police later cleared the cardinal.

It was the first time Mahony had reported an abuse allegation to the LAPD, and the only time he could be certain it was false.

By the spring of 2002, the file Mahony kept on Michael Baker had grown to more than 300 pages. Only a handful of people had ever laid eyes on it, and the cardinal thought it inconceivable that its damaging contents would ever become public.

As in the past, Mahony had misjudged Baker. When Times reporters tracked the former priest down, he provided details of how he had told the archbishop he was a child molester. In the 2002 front-page story, Baker recounted that during a 1986 meeting with Mahony, a church attorney blurted out that perhaps police should be called.

Mahony's response, Baker told the paper, was "No, no, no."

Defrocked priest Michael Baker, right, with his attorney, Leonard Levine, during his sentencing at Los Angeles County Superior Court on Dec. 3, 2007. Baker pleaded guilty to 12 counts of sexually molesting two boys. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

The revelation prompted then-Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley to convene a grand jury to subpoena the personnel files of Baker and other priests. Mahony refused to turn over the files, saying canon law required that conversations between bishops and priests remain confidential. Cooley countered that there was no such legal protection and accused the cardinal of obstruction.

The battle cost the archbishop in Sacramento, where lawyers and victims' groups were pushing for legislation that would temporarily lift the statute of limitations on sex abuse lawsuits and allow victims to sue the church over decades-old allegations. Mahony was once a powerful force in the capital, but his refusal to hand over records was now being cited by irate legislators — some of them raised in the church — as a reason to support the bill.

"It made it easy for the Legislature," Rod Pacheco, then a GOP assemblyman from Riverside and a former altar boy, recalled in an interview. "We're in Sacramento reading these articles and talking to people in our districts. No one's on the church's side. Nobody."

The measure passed easily.

The scandal consumed Mahony's days, but he seemed to find solace at the corner of Temple Street and Grand Avenue. There, the $189-million Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels was nearing completion. Mahony had spent years approving every detail, down to the wattage of freight elevator light bulbs. He walked the grounds almost daily in a hard hat and snapped enough photos to fill 40 albums. When he spoke of the sprawling plaza and the soaring nave, he sounded like a new father.

"I dreamed of how it would look," he said at the time, "but I never thought it could be so beautiful."

To Mahony's dismay, the abuse scandal continued to dominate the news. He turned to the crisis public relations firm Sitrick and Co., which had counted Enron among its clients. In one meeting with journalists arranged by the firm, he said he thought about the scandal every two to three minutes and wished he could "back up and undo" his mistakes.

"We were really following what was then a view in the psychiatric, psychological circle that this particular malady could somehow be successfully treated," he said. "And that turned out to be wrong."

He ended by pleading for "some great story about the cathedral without sex abuse in that story."

Cardinal Mahony officiates at the dedication of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown L.A. in 2002. "I never thought it could be so beautiful," he said. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

In the weeks surrounding the cathedral's September 2002 unveiling, the elite of L.A. feted Mahony. Billionaire Eli Broad hosted an intimate dinner at the California Club, and a who's who of L.A. — including Vin Scully and Roy Disney — turned out for a $25,000-a-table black-tie gala.

The four-hour dedication Mass was so important to Mahony that he went through 32 drafts of his homily. In the end, he didn't mention sex abuse; but outside, protesters had brought a papier-mache effigy of Mahony holding a sign that read, "Suffer the little children." Some mocked his cathedral as "the Taj Mahony."

Four months later, the first lawsuits resulting from the Sacramento law were filed. Mahony hired a downtown firm that specialized in what attorneys call "bet-the-company litigation." The law firm estimated that about 100 people would sue. In the end, more than 500 did.

The claims stretched back to the 1930s, and many named priests never previously accused of abuse, including Loomis, the Mahony aide who had removed Baker from ministry. Loomis denied the allegations but was put on leave. Lawyers had predicted a "feeding frenzy" of false claims. But as victim after victim gave sworn accounts, it became clear to church officials that the vast majority were telling the truth.

With the scandal he had feared for so long now a reality, Mahony began to embrace transparency. In 2004, he named more than 200 accused priests in a comprehensive report unparalleled in the American church. It called on the church to "examine its conscience" about having placed secrecy and image preservation above the well-being of children.

Mahony set up an office to assist victims. He hired retired FBI agents to investigate every claim. He instituted fingerprinting for clergy, teachers and volunteers and started a mandatory program to teach them how to prevent abuse.

Mahony invited victims to meet one-on-one with him. More than 90 accepted. A man who said he was molested by Baker refused to shake Mahony's hand, he told The Times, and lambasted the cardinal for more than an hour about how the priest's abuse had led to a lifetime of crime and alcoholism.

How can I help you? Mahony finally asked.

Give me my childhood back, the man replied.

Richard Zatorski of Lake Tahoe looks at a cross with pictures of abuse victims that was posted at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in 2004. (Los Angeles Times)

On a winter evening in 2008, Mahony welcomed a group of parishioners from La Cañada Flintridge into a conference room at the cathedral.

He had settled the bulk of the abuse litigation for $720 million, far greater than any previous settlements in the U.S. Catholic Church and far more than the archdiocese could afford. Mahony was now forced to beg wealthy parishes for contributions.

St. Bede's had more than $100,000 to spare. He showed the parishioners accountants' reports, charts and timelines, two people who attended the meeting said in interviews. He told them how an East L.A. parish had held a tamale sale and brought him a check for a couple hundred dollars.

What about Michael Baker? a man interrupted.

A lot of us come from business backgrounds, a woman further down the table said, and you are a CEO who just paid out a three-quarter-billion-dollar settlement. We think you should resign.

Don't you think I want to retire? Mahony said, his voice rising. I could be at my cabin in the Sierra. I'm staying because I'm the best person to fix this.

It's about accountability, another woman said.

Mahony slammed his hand on the table, scattering his charts. You self-righteous... he began. Keep your money, he told them.

By 2011, when Mahony reached the church's retirement age of 75, he had outlasted most of the public fury.

He planned on using his remaining years to advocate for the rights of immigrants in the country illegally and saw an opportunity when President Obama announced his second-term push to overhaul immigration law.

But events in a dreary courtroom west of downtown last winter would ensure that he couldn't separate his legacy from the abuse scandal. In January, after years of delays, a judge signed an order forcing the archdiocese to make public thousands of pages of priest personnel files, the final piece of Mahony's mammoth settlement with victims.

Cardinal Roger Mahony in 2002. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

I pray for them every single day.... I am sorry.”

— Cardinal Mahony

The records showed for the first time, and often in Mahony's own handwriting, the level of his personal involvement with abuse cases. He had reviewed the psychiatric reports in which priests laid out what they'd done to children. He had read the letters in which mothers of victims described their agony, and he had strategized with aides about how to keep abusers from justice.

He issued yet another apology, this one describing notecards he'd kept listing the names of the victims he had met.

"I pray for them every single day," he said. "I am sorry."

It wasn't enough. There were calls for Mahony's prosecution. When he ventured out to run errands, strangers berated him.

His successor, Archbishop Jose Gomez, wrote a letter to the faithful admonishing the cardinal for his failures in dealing with abuse and announcing that Mahony would no longer have any "administrative and public duties" in the archdiocese. Mahony was furious. He objected in private to the Vatican and in a letter to Gomez he posted on his blog.

"Not once over these past years did you ever raise any questions" about clergy abuse, Mahony wrote, adding, "I handed over to you an Archdiocese that was second to none in protecting children and youth."

Hours later, Gomez issued a clarification that Mahony remained "in good standing."

On a Monday morning nearly two weeks later, Mahony woke up to the news that Pope Benedict XVI had resigned.

"I look forward to traveling to Rome soon … to participate in the Conclave to elect his successor," he typed on his blog.

Many did not share his enthusiasm. With Law too old to vote for the next pope, Mahony stood as the global face of clergy abuse. A liberal U.S. Catholic group started an online petition urging him to stay home.

After he arrived at the Vatican, some of his fellow prelates, men whose own records on abuse largely remained secret, distanced themselves. Several told reporters that Mahony should look to his own conscience in deciding whether to participate.

Mahony stood his ground, giving television interviews and blogging and tweeting from Rome. But once he returned to Los Angeles, he largely faded from public view.

He now lives in the rectory of his boyhood parish in North Hollywood. Some Sundays, he volunteers at churches in poorer neighborhoods, saying Mass in Spanish in place of vacationing priests.

When Mahony's predecessor retired, a church historian worked with him to prepare an exhaustive biography. No one is currently working on Mahony's.

Friends say that on his best days, he sees the scandal as the cross God has asked him to bear.

"I am not being called to serve Jesus in humility. Rather, I am being called to something deeper — to be humiliated, disgraced, and rebuffed by many," he wrote on his blog. He added, "To be honest with you, I have not reached the point where I can actually pray for more humiliation. I'm only at the stage of asking for the grace to endure the level of humiliation at the moment."

Michael Baker served about six years behind bars after pleading guilty to molesting two boys. Authorities believe he abused at least 21 other children. He now lives at a senior citizen community in Costa Mesa. On a recent morning, he answered the door for reporters wearing only shorts. Keep your voices down, he said. My neighbors don't know.

In an interview shortly before his release from prison, two L.A. detectives pressed Baker about Mahony.

Why did the cardinal shelter you for so long? they asked.

Baker shrugged.

"I don't know his phone number. I never called him. I never went over to his place, never had any meal," he said. "We haven't talked since that one meeting in 1986."

Retired and relieved of duties by his successor, Mahony waits in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican last February for Pope Benedict XVI's last weekly audience. (AFP / Getty Images)

Contact the reporters | Follow Victoria Kim (@vicjkim), Ashley Powers (@AshleyPowers), and Harriet Ryan (@latimesharriet) on Twitter

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Additional credits: Web producers, Armand Emamdjomeh and Samantha Schaefer | Graphics, Matt Moody | Digital design director, Stephanie Ferrell

About this series

This series is based on nearly 23,000 pages of internal documents from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and various religious orders that were made public this year in compliance with court orders. In addition, Times reporters reviewed thousands of pages of depositions and court filings and interviewed dozens of people, including church officials, victims' families and law enforcement officials. Cardinal Roger Mahony declined to be interviewed or respond to questions sent to his attorney.

Unless otherwise stated, and excepting historical and biographical information from Times archives, all information in the stories is based on internal church records released through court order or sworn depositions. Statements that appear within quotation marks are from depositions, church records, public statements, interviews and contemporaneous coverage in the Los Angeles Times. Some comments and conversations have been paraphrased based on the recollections of participants; in those instances, quotation marks are not used.