Hundreds of sexual abuse claims filed against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles are not only legitimate but tragic, an attorney for Cardinal Roger M. Mahony said Thursday.
"There are some that will just break your heart," said J. Michael Hennigan, who for two years has read and listened to the victims' stories as he prepared to defend the nation's largest Catholic archdiocese in more than 500 lawsuits that could eventually cost the church and its insurers $1 billion or more.
But he acknowledged that translating that pain into dollars is no simple matter. "The hard part is to say, 'OK, what would a Los Angeles jury do with our worst 50 cases -- the ones that make your skin crawl? Is it $5 million? Is it $6 million? Is it $8 million? I don't know."
In a wide-ranging luncheon interview at The Times, Mahony and Hennigan made clear that the church is not prepared to abandon its legal battles. They reiterated their decision to appeal a recent court ruling that the archdiocese must turn over documents in the confidential records of two former priests to Los Angeles prosecutors investigating sexual abuse allegations.
They also spoke of the church's ongoing legal battles trying to get the 12 insurance companies that provided coverage to the archdiocese during the period covered by the lawsuits to shoulder the greatest share of potential settlements. The diocese expects its insurers to pay a big portion of the settlement with the archdiocese making "a sizable contribution" to financially resolving these cases, Hennigan said. He called the archdiocese's coverage "robust."
"One would think that having a great deal of insurance would be an asset here. Of course, what it does is open a second front [of litigation] because the insurance carriers are not at all excited about having this kind of liability against them," he said.
The candid tenor of Mahony and Hennigan's remarks during the interview contrasted sharply with their assessment two years ago at a similar luncheon with Times writers and editors. Then, Hennigan and Mahony seemed more focused on deflecting blame. They stressed that much of the alleged sexual abuse in the archdiocese occurred before Mahony became archbishop in 1985, and that Mahony had quickly sought to remove abusive priests from the ministry.
On Thursday, both men seemed more reflective, readily acknowledging the church's failures, while underscoring their determination to safeguard youths.
Mahony said the sexual abuse scandal was "not the cross I would have chosen," but he said he accepts that one of the church's primary ministries -- and his personal challenges -- must now be to help heal victims and the church alike.
Mahony spoke of reaching out to victims in small "apology prayer services" in which the cardinal offers his personal apologies on behalf of the church, and presents them with rosaries blessed by Pope John Paul II.
"Personally for me its been a time of great spiritual renewal," Mahony said. "I know the priests, when I talk to them sometimes, a lot of priests say I wish it would all go away.... And I said, 'That's where we're missing it. This is our ministry now. Our ministry is to heal victims and heal the church.' "
Mahony was sharply critical, however, of a report issued last year by an independent review board appointed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which chastised the Los Angeles Archdiocese for its litigation tactics, saying they "did little to enhance the reputation of the church in the United States for transparency and cooperation."
"I just think they are wrong. It's too bad they had that in there," Mahony said.
Hennigan went further, calling the report's characterization of the archdiocese "political retribution" for earlier criticisms the cardinal had made of the board.
Reached through his Washington law office, review board member Robert S. Bennett on Thursday called Hennigan's charge "an absolute baldfaced lie." If anything, Bennett said, the archdiocese should be glad the report wasn't even more critical.
Bennett added, however, that since the Los Angeles Archdiocese had taken positive steps "we didn't see any need to lay out the long history of the Los Angeles Archdiocese in a more critical fashion. We did feel we had to put in what we put in because the Los Angeles Archdiocese was a good illustrative example of hardball litigation tactics which did not do a service to the church."
Hennigan insisted that there is reason for the church to continue fighting many of the cases. He said that about 150 to 200 of the 520 cases were clear-cut and their facts heart-wrenching, but that others were more difficult to assess.
He called some claims "frivolous" on their face, involving such things as "a pat on the butt during an athletic contest."
The attorney also questioned those who have said the scandal in Los Angeles would make the disclosure in the Boston Archdiocese seem like child's play. In Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law was forced to resign as archbishop after a court ordered the church to make its personnel files public.
"Of course, they don't have a clue of what's in our files, except for the plaintiffs, who are seeing our proffers, our demonstrations of content," Hennigan said. He said the church has already willingly disclosed examples of the most serious cases in a report issued in February and posted on its website.
And, Mahony and Hennigan emphasized repeatedly, they have taken numerous steps both to extend spiritual counsel to sexual abuse victims and to safeguard children and youths from pedophile priests. More than 10,000 archdiocese priests and employees, including Mahony, have undergone a three-hour course to help ensure a safe environment in Catholic schools and parishes. The church was also reaching out to victims with counseling, and more recently, small prayer groups attended at times by Mahony.
"They are in various places on the journey," Mahony said of the victims and efforts to assist them through prayer groups. "Some are not ready. Some are." The service begins with prayer and a reading from Scripture recounting Jesus' lonely hour in the Garden of Gethsemane before he was arrested and eventually crucified.
Mahony said the victims were reminded that Jesus, "totally innocent," had to contemplate the suffering he would have to go through. "So it helps place the victim in a good place; that is, they too have been innocent and they, like Jesus, had to suffer too.
"Out of their suffering we hope also would come some grace," Mahony said.