LOS ANGELES – When Los Angeles police were investigating allegations of child abuse by a Roman Catholic priest in 1988, they asked for a list of altar boys at the last parish where the priest worked.
Archbishop Roger Mahony told a subordinate not to give the list, saying he didn't want the boys to be scarred by the investigation and that he felt the altar boys were too old to be potential victims, according to a deposition made public Wednesday.
The detectives investigating allegations against Nicolas Aguilar Rivera, a visiting Mexican priest, ultimately got the names of the boys from parish families. They determined the priest molested at least 26 boys during his 10 months in Los Angeles, according to the priest's confidential archdiocese file and police records made public by attorneys for the victims.
Twenty-five of the alleged victims were altar boys and the 26th was training with the priest to be one, said Anthony DeMarco, a plaintiff attorney. It's not clear what impact Mahony's action had on the investigation, though at the time police complained that the archdiocese wasn't fully cooperating.
Mahony's deposition was obtained by The Associated Press and is part of the evidence included in a settlement of abuse claims against Aguilar Rivera and four other priests. The archdiocese, the nation's largest, agreed to pay $13 million to 17 victims.
Since 2006, the archdiocese has paid more than $700 million to settle clergy abuse lawsuits by hundreds of victims. Internal church files kept on priests accused of abuse were released last year under court order. They showed that Mahony, who was elevated to cardinal and retired in 2011, maneuvered behind the scenes with his top aide Monsignor Thomas Curry to shield molester priests, provide damage control for the church and keep parishioners in the dark.
When the files were released, prosecutors said the cases fell outside the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution of any church officials.
Mahony's sworn testimony in the case of Aguilar Rivera is significant because it's the first time he has been questioned under oath about clergy abuse since the confidential church files were released. During past depositions, attorneys haven't had documents to back up their questions, DeMarco said.
"This time when he's trying to do the 'I don't remember' routine, I put the document in from of him and said, 'You wrote this, right?'" he said.
J. Michael Hennigan, an attorney with the archdiocese, said Mahony didn't reveal a list of altar boys, also called altar servers, to police because he didn't believe any of the alleged victims were among them. Mahony was in Rome on Wednesday and was not available to comment, Hennigan said.
"My recollection is at the time that memo was written there was no suggestion that altar servers were involved," the attorney said, adding that Mahony was "very vigorous" in trying to get Aguilar Rivera brought back to the U.S. for prosecution after he fled.
"What I know is there came a time when whatever the police wanted we gave them and it was shortly after this, but I don't know if the police ever reissued that request," he said of the list.
Aguilar Rivera was accused in January 1988 by two families who told church officials that he had fondled their children and, in one instance, climbed into bed with a boy after drinking too much during a Christmas celebration at the family's home.
The priest was told about the complaints by Curry and fled to Mexico before police were notified. He remains a fugitive and is believed to be in Mexico.
Church files released last year show that Mahony ordered Curry to withhold the altar boy list from the LAPD.
In a Jan. 26, 1988, handwritten note on a memo about the police request for a list, Mahony wrote, "We cannot give such a list for no (sic) cause whatsoever."
In the deposition, Mahony expanded on his reasoning. Allowing police to question altar boys at the two parishes where Aguilar Rivera worked would have created a "negative effect on a large group of altar servers who know nothing about any of this and that was -- not a good idea."
It "could be very traumatic to those servers to all of a sudden be sitting in front of a policeman being interrogated," the cardinal said. "And we had no suspicion at that time of any other victims and nobody among the altar servers."
He denied under questioning from plaintiff attorneys that his motivation in holding back the list was to protect the priest and delay the investigation.
Mahony also defended Curry, the vicar for clergy, for telling Aguilar Rivera that the church would need to contact police and that the accused priest was "in a good deal of danger."
The complaints came in on a Friday and Curry met with the priest on Saturday morning. Police weren't notified until Monday and Aguilar Rivera was gone.
Mahony also testified about the case of accused priest Peter Garcia, who already was in treatment for alleged sexual abuse when Mahony took over the archdiocese in 1985.
The following year, Mahony wrote to the director of the New Mexico center where Garcia was receiving treatment and warned that the priest couldn't return to Los Angeles in the foreseeable future. The two alleged victims had switched attorneys, he wrote, and "I believe that if Monsignor Garcia were to reappear here with the Archdiocese we might very well have some type of legal action filed in both the criminal and civil sectors."
In his deposition, Mahony said that letter was not intended to keep Garcia safe from prosecution.
"Was I interested in having a big civil upset here for the archdiocese? No, I was not. And -- but I was not encouraging him to avoid criminal prosecution," he said.
"You've got to realize, you know, they talk about these states lines. State lines mean nothing," Mahony added. "I mean this is not a big deal. ... He's not in a country that doesn't have a -- what do they call those? -- an extradition treaty. He's a few hours from here."
Mahony, who turns 78 later this month, has largely retreated from the public eye since traveling to Rome last year for the papal conclave.