LOS ANGELES — Retired Roman Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony defended his tattered legacy Friday in a sharply worded letter to his successor, one day after Archbishop Jose Gomez stripped him of his administrative duties and bowed to a court order to release thousands of pages of confidential files on sexually abusive priests.
In a letter posted on his blog, Mahony challenged Gomez for publicly shaming him and said he developed policies to safeguard children after taking over in 1985, despite being unequipped to deal with the molester priests he inherited.
Mahony, 76, had apologized two weeks ago after another release of similar files showed he and other top aides worked to protect the church from the growing scandal, keep offending clerics out of state and prevent public disclosure of sex crimes committed by priests.
Gomez was aware when he took over in 2011 of the steps Mahony had taken to develop better clergy sex-abuse policies and never questioned his leadership until Thursday, Mahony wrote. “Unfortunately, I cannot return now to the 1980s and reverse actions and decisions made then. But when I retired as the active archbishop, I handed over to you an archdiocese that was second to none in protecting children and youth,” Mahony wrote.
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The letter was remarkable because it revealed infighting between two highly placed church leaders when members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy rarely break ranks publicly, said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who worked for the Vatican’s Washington, D.C., embassy.
“It is so rare because they stick together like glue,” he said. “The fact that Gomez said what he said, this had to have been cleared by the Vatican, they had to have discussed this with the Vatican. Mahony took the fall.”
Gomez declined an interview request.
The exchange also indicates the stress Mahony is under after several weeks of disclosures of priest personnel files that reveal he and a top aide, Thomas Curry, who is now a bishop, maneuvered to shield priests from prosecution, kept parishioners in the dark and failed to call police about sex crimes against minors.
Gomez also accepted a resignation request from Curry, who most recently served as auxiliary bishop in charge of the archdiocese’s Santa Barbara region.
The fallout will get worse as parishioners read the thousands of pages of documents that are posted on the archdiocese website. The files were to be released as part of a record-breaking $660 million settlement with more than 500 victims of sex abuse, but lawyers for the archdiocese and individual priests waged a five-year battle to keep them sealed.
On Thursday, a judge ordered them released without significant redactions after attorneys for The Associated Press and Los Angeles Times intervened. Several documents in the newly released files echo recurring themes that emerged over the past decade in dioceses nationwide, where church leaders moved problem priests between parishes and didn’t call police.
Studies commissioned by the U.S. bishops found more than 4,000 U.S. priests have faced sexual-abuse allegations since the early 1950s, in cases involving more than 10,000 children.
In one instance, a draft of a plan with Mahony’s name on it calls for sending a molester priest to his native Spain for a minimum of seven years, paying him $400 a month and offering health insurance.
In return, the cardinal would agree to write the Vatican and ask it to cancel his excommunication, leaving the door open for him to return as a priest someday.
In another case, Mahony resisted turning over a list of altar boys to police who were investigating claims against a visiting Mexican priest who was later determined to have molested 26 boys during a 10-month stint in Los Angeles. “We cannot give such a list for no cause whatsoever,” he wrote on a January 1988 memo.
Mahony can still act as a priest, keep his rank as cardinal and remain on a critical Vatican panel that elects the next pope.
Sex-abuse victims pointed out the contrast between Mahony’s pared-down local standing and his continued position as a cardinal who remains in good standing in Rome. The decision “is little more than window dressing. Cardinal Mahony is still a very powerful prelate,” said Joelle Casteix, of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “He’s a very powerful man in Rome and still a very powerful man in Los Angeles.”
The Vatican declined to comment Friday.