Archbishop accused in US paedophilia scandal

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The paedophilia scandal racking the Catholic Church in the United States shifted focus from Boston to the west coast over the weekend when the Archbishop of Los Angeles, already under fire for his reluctance to tell police the names of suspected abusers, was forced to disclose he had been accused of molestation himself.

Cardinal Roger Mahony, who runs the largest diocese in the country, vigorously denied the allegation, and the woman who made it – a mentally disturbed former fast-food worker – admitted she could recall few details of the alleged incident 32 years ago.

Nevertheless, this is by far the most incendiary allegation since the current paedophilia scandal broke in January. Cardinal Mahony is the first American archbishop to be directly accused of molestation since 1993, when Joseph Bernardin of Chicago successfully fended off similar accusations.

Publicity over the allegation – whatever its merits – has triggered angry denunciations from other quarters, notably from plaintiffs in a successful $7m (£4.9m) lawsuit against the Church in central California, who say Cardinal Mahony, as Bishop of Stockton in the early 1980s, allowed a self-confessed abusive priest to continue ministering to children.

The allegation has involved a leak of high-level e-mails from within the archdiocese, including several written by Cardinal Mahony himself. The e-mail correspondence shows how the sex abuse claim, first made by the woman two weeks ago, threw an already jittery Church into panic, with Cardinal Mahony making impassioned pleas to stop events spiralling out of control.

The woman, Flora Mae Hickman, told police in her home town of Fresno that, as a high school student in 1970, she remembered waking up from a fainting fit with the bottom part of her clothing unaccountably missing and Monsignor Mahony, as he was then, standing over her.

Cardinal Mahony wrote in an e-mail to his chief legal adviser, Sister Judith Murphy: "I'm not sure you grasp the gravity of the situation and where this is heading – not only with the media, but with the law enforcement and legal folks.

"If we don't take immediate, aggressive action here, the consequences for the AD [archdiocese] are going to be incredible: charges of cover-up, concealing criminals, etc, etc."

Late last week, the Church went to court in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the leaked e-mails being broadcast by the Los Angeles radio station that first received them. Cardinal Mahony then issued a three-page statement denying he had ever molested anyone. He wrote: "Such false allegations are hurtful and troubling to me, yet I continue to pray fervently for those who make them."

Cardinal Mahony had been under pressure for some time to give the police the names of a handful of priests he had identified as abusers.

Initially he refused, to the fury of both the Los Angeles Police Department and the district attorney's office, which pointed out that the Church was required by law to report abuse allegations immediately.

But within days of Ms Hickman's allegation, the archbishop had a partial change of heart and gave police the names of three priests. Although some of his e-mails to Sister Murphy argued in favour of full disclosure, there are, by his own count, at least five other priests accused of abuse still unaccounted for.

Steve Cooley, the Los Angeles district attorney, said some of the archbishop's statements caused him "grave concern" and he wanted to know whether the archdiocese had acted illegally in seeking to withhold information.

At the same time, the FBI was called in to investigate the e-mail leak – an act the archdiocese described as theft and a criminal violation ofattorney-client privilege.