02/01/2013 10:20 am ET Updated Apr 03, 2013

Sexual Abuse and the Church: Everyone Knew Better

In the annals of bureaucratic indifference, the phrase "we didn't know any better" is often employed by those who looked past human suffering and helped abusers to escape responsibility. In the cases of priests who have raped and molested children, Catholic bishops have often offered this excuse after the world comes to know that they protected their brothers rather than report their crimes to police.

The "we didn't know better" excuse echoed again from Los Angeles recently where newly released documents show that then Cardinal Roger Mahony and his advisor Monsignor Thomas Curry long maneuvered to shield known abusers from police and prosecutors. In one case Mahony advised a priest whom he knew had abused 20 child victims to stay out of California "for the foreseeable future" to avoid "some type of legal action filed in both the criminal and civil sectors." In another case Mahony considered Curry's suggestion that an offending priest see a psychiatrist who is also a lawyer because the attorney-client privilege would bar the doctor from reporting his crimes. ""Sounds good --please proceed!!" wrote Mahony.

These notes, among many others, show a pattern of deference to priests whose victims included many who were children of undocumented Mexican immigrants. One letter noted that a priest named Peter Garcia admitted molesting boys "off and on" for decades but felt safe from prosecution because his victims feared the authorities. He even confessed to threatening one child with deportation if he ever complained to police.

As the documents were released, the cardinal's legal representative reminded reporters that Mahony and Curry dealt with these cases during "a period of deepening understanding of the nature of the problem of sex abuse both here and in our society in general." In fact in this time -- 1986 to 1989 - the problem of sexual abuse was widely recognized and many professionals were required, by law to report even suspected abuse. In 1984 President Reagan used his state of the union address to decry "horrible crimes like sexual abuse and family violence." In 1985 Mahony and his fellow bishops received a report on the problem by experts who warned them that they faced "Extreme Criminal Law Possibilities" in such cases. The primary authors of the briefing paper, a lawyer named Raymond Mouton and a priest named Thomas Doyle, had examined Church records, understood how many crimes had been covered-up, and warned of an avalanche of scandal to come.

The avalanche started in the mid-1980s and has continued ever since, with hundreds of priests going to jail and more than $3 billion paid to victims in civil suits. The documents released on Jan. 21, thanks in large measure to the efforts of victims attorneys led by Tony DeMarco of Pasadena, add to the mass of evidence showing that long after they surely knew better, hierarchs continued to protect priests who had committed serious crimes. More details, and presumably more excuses will certainly come, as priest abuse files were released yesterday by the L.A. Archdiocese.

I often encounter people who wonder why, after three decades, the Church continues to be afflicted by scandal related to abuse cases, many of which are 20 or 30 years old. In the Los Angeles case, all the tragic truth could have come out years ago, when the Church settled lawsuits with payments totaling more than $600 million. At that time the archdiocese agreed to release its files, but it failed to honor its commitment in a timely fashion. This choice means the Church is now subject to a catastrophe occurring in such slow motion that everyone is able to see all the dreadful nuances of its cover-ups. And we have the time to of check the record to see that in fact, everyone did know better, even way back then.