By JOHN R. EMSHWILLER
LOS ANGELES — Federal authorities are investigating the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles to see whether top church officials tried to cover up the sexual abuse of minors by priests, said a person familiar with the matter.
A federal grand jury has issued subpoenas and begun calling witnesses in the probe, which began late last year, said this person. The investigation is still in its early, fact-gathering stage, and it isn’t known whether any criminal charges will result.
Thomas O’Brien, the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles, declined to comment on the investigation.
J. Michael Hennigan, a lawyer for the archdiocese, said in an email on behalf of church officials: "The Archdiocese has received requests from the U.S. Attorney’s office for information about a number of individual priests, two of whom are deceased; none of whom remain in ministry. We have been and will continue to be fully cooperative with the investigation."
Cardinal Roger Mahony, who heads the archdiocese, the largest in the U.S., has been criticized by victims’ groups for his past handling of sexual-abuse allegations against priests. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office has been investigating allegations of such abuses for several years.
District Attorney Steve Cooley criticized the archdiocese in 2007 for its "institutional moral failure" to "supervise predatory priests." A spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office said their investigation is still open.
Catholic Church leaders said they have done much to address the priest sexual-abuse problem. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for example, set up a national review board in 2002 aimed at "preventing the sexual abuse of minors in the United States by persons in the service of the Church," according to the organization’s Web site. Individual dioceses "have made significant strides to instill practices that will ensure the safety of children in the church," said the organization’s Web site.
The district attorney’s investigation began in 2002, around the same time that internal archdiocese emails about priests accused of abuse surfaced in the media.
Over the following two years, dozens of alleged victims stepped forward, with many filing lawsuits. They claimed the archdiocese shielded priests accused of molestation by keeping the allegations secret and allowing them to keep working, sometimes moving them from one parish to another.
In 2004, the archdiocese, which covers three Southern California counties containing more than four million Catholics, issued a report on the priest sex-abuse scandal. Cardinal Mahony apologized to victims and acknowledged "my own mistakes during my 18 years" as the archdiocese’s leader.
In 2007, the Los Angeles archdiocese agreed to pay $660 million to 508 alleged victims, among the largest settlements in the U.S. priest scandal.
No senior Catholic Church officials have been criminally charged in the national scandal. But representatives of abuse victims alleged that senior officials helped perpetuate the crimes by ignoring or covering up evidence of misdeeds. They have argued that prosecuting senior church officials would help stop future abuse.
"Everything else has been tried with minimal impact except charging an individual bishop. That would have to an impact," says David Clohessy, national director for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a nonprofit victims-advocacy group based in Chicago.
A spokeswoman for the Catholic bishops conference said her organization has seen no evidence that senior church officials were involved in criminal acts. "Enormous strides have been made" in recent years by the Catholic church in dealing with the priest-abuse problem, she said. More than 1.8 million clergy and other church personnel have been trained to create a safe environment for children and to prevent abuse, she said, and a similar number of background checks also have been done on clerics and other church workers.
The federal investigation in Los Angeles is the latest chapter in government’s efforts to grapple with the priest-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church that have struck in waves over the past three decades.
Numerous individual priests have been criminally charged and convicted in abuse cases, and Catholic dioceses around the U.S. have agreed to settle civil lawsuits.
While most of the investigations have been done by state and local officials, federal investigators also have gotten involved at times. In 2005, the Archdiocese of Boston resolved a federal criminal investigation into whether the church officials had withheld information about an allegedly abusive priest. The archdiocese, which denied any criminal wrongdoing, agreed to new disclosure requirements and audits regarding its child-protection practices.
Write to John R. Emshwiller at firstname.lastname@example.org