READ IT AND WEEP: The moral of the child-abuse saga roiling the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles is that those who refuse to fall on their swords can expect to be chucked under the bus. Last week, Santa Barbara’s auxiliary bishop for the past 19 years, Thomas J. Curry, had the good sense to silently announce his resignation amid fresh allegations that he actively conspired to cover up for predator priests back in the 1980s when he was the archdiocesan point person for pedophile priests. These charges surfaced with the recent, court-ordered release of internal church files, which spelled out the lengths taken by church officials like Curry and his boss — then-archbishop Roger Mahony — to shield priestly pederasts from the prying eyes of law enforcement. No doubt Curry’s wisdom was inspired by the gun pointed to his head by L.A.’s new archbishop, José Gomez. That’s the same Gomez who famously rebuked Mahony, a rock star even in retirement, for his failure to address the problem of clerical sex abuse.
In a public dressing-down more symbolic than substantive, Gomez “relieved” Mahony of all “administrative” functions. In reality, this means only that Mahony can no longer perform confirmations. Still, it’s a big deal. Within the Catholic scheme of things — fetishistically hierarchical — that’s like a third-base coach ordering his manager to the locker room. Mahony, who has transformed the public apology into a virtuoso art form, did not go quietly into Gomez’s long good night and has squawked to make the heavens wince. He had no specific training to deal with the problem, he protested. And what about all the reforms he initiated, he demanded, that made “protecting children and youth” in L.A. “second to none”? By contrast, Curry — who had issued one of those terrible “I’m sorry if I did something which in hindsight seems to have been mistaken” apologies — had the good grace to shut up and take his lumps.
Many organizations representing abuse survivors were understandably skeptical about the timing of Gomez’s action. Gomez issued his edict about the same time he released 12,000 pages, worth of personnel files for accused priests. The documents made for “brutal and painful” reading, Gomez has famously said, describing behavior that was “terribly sad and evil.” True enough, but Gomez has known the contents of these documents for two years now, during which time he has led the fight to limit and restrict their release in the courts. Only when he lost and the documents were ordered released did Gomez make his famous principled stand. Because of this, some survivors have dismissed the gesture as “too little, too late.” Being a big believer in the rhetorical power of even empty gestures, I subscribe to the “better late than never” school of thought.
It turns out there may have been other considerations at work. As reported in the L.A. Times, Gomez — who has a degree in accounting — is contemplating a $200-million fundraising campaign to stabilize the archdiocesan books, now significantly underwater. Of the $660 million the Los Angeles Archdiocese has had to shell out to 550 victims, about half came out of its own pockets, the rest from insurance companies. To pave the way for such a campaign, the sex-abuse scandal needs to be consigned safely to the rearview mirror of history. And for that to happen, a couple of sacrificial big dogs needed to take a bullet for the team.
“I told him that it was likely the accusations would be reported to the police and that he was in a good deal of danger,” Curry stated, according to released files. Curry, it turned out, did not call the cops; a nun who taught at a Catholic school with Aguilar did.
And as the case of Father Nicolas Aguilar Rivera — Padre Nico — illustrates, they definitely have it coming. Aguilar was dumped onto the poor and largely Latino parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe in El Sereno in January 1987, after he had been seriously beaten by the faithful for child abuse in his previous parish in Mexico. According to church documents, Padre Nico wasted little time groping his charges upon arriving in Los Angeles, and on Saturday, January 9, 1988, then-monsignor Thomas Curry met with the priest and fired him. When Curry offered to find him space in a retreat house to live in — Aguilar could no longer remain in parish housing — the priest stated he planned to return to Mexico in the next couple of days. “I told him that it was likely the accusations would be reported to the police and that he was in a good deal of danger,” Curry stated, according to released files. Curry, it turned out, did not call the cops; a nun who taught at a Catholic school with Aguilar did. By then, the priest had fled the country, and Curry never notified authorities he might be a flight risk.
When police then asked Curry and Mahony for the names of altar boys at the school to interview, they refused to turn the names over. The abuse took place at the church, they argued; there was no evidence that such behavior occurred at the school. Curry would write he’d been “friendly but firm” in his refusal. The cops got the names anyway and quickly found no fewer than 26 students who claimed Fr. Nico had stroked their genitals — always with their pants on — and some who claimed he had them reciprocate.
In hindsight, the Mexican bishop who first sent Aguilar to L.A. claimed he had warned Curry and Mahony at the time that Aguilar was a problem priest. In that letter, the bishop said Aguilar was leaving Mexico for “family and health reasons,” which, if you’re fluent in Catholic, was code-speak for gay. Curry and Mahony had advance warning, he claimed. They insist they never saw such a letter. In August 1988, the files show that a Santa Barbara parishioner wrote Curry accusing him of dispatching Aguilar out of the country to evade arrest. Curry wrote back denying the charge and insisted that he “saw to it that the matter was properly reported to the authorities.” The authorities — who would ultimately file 19 sex-abuse charges against the fugitive priest — would clearly beg to differ. At this writing, Aguilar remains in the wind.
What comes from all this new info remains uncertain. Probably nothing. But in this case, that’s still something. In fact, it’s a lot.