L.A. May Have Been Used As 'Experiment' and Revolving Door in Dealing With Pedophile Priests
With the election of a new Pope, the church is eager to begin its next chapter, but the past continues to haunt the L.A. Archdiocese.
In an exclusive investigation, never before heard tapes obtained by "SoCal Connected" reveal straight talk from church officials about how to deal with sexually abusive priests. They also show Los Angeles was part of a quiet experiment to reassign those priests. We've also done exhaustive data analysis tracking the abusers.
Vince Gonzales/Reporter: This stack of yearbooks is evidence of a 30-year-friendship.
Daniel Olivas: I think back then, we were a couple of guys who wanted to do well in school, and we wanted to do something with our lives. We both wanted to go get married and have kids, which we both eventually did.
Jaime Romo/Victim of priest abuse: Dan and I stayed in touch a lot, and I just always liked him. We came from similar families.
Olivas: The parallels are kind of startling; we both attended Loyal High School; we both went to Stanford University, and then we eventually both got married within a year of each other. We are both each other's best man.
Gonzales: And these best friends both went to Catholic schools in Los Angeles, Daniel Olivas, at St. Thomas the Apostle, and Jaime Romo at Divine Savior. Like many Latino families, theirs were devoted to the church and held their parish priests in high regard. Daniel’s priest was father Al Ramos.
Olivas: Father Al Ramos came to my house. He was at our house several times. He was the rock star priest.
Gonzales: In the Romo household, Jaime's mother idolized father Leyland Boyer.
Romo: She connected with Boyer and became like best friends. They talked every day. They were kind of intellectual matches.
Gonzales: And this is where the similarities between Dan and Jaime end. And one terrible, awful difference emerges: Jaime was abused by his parish priest, Father Boyer.
Romo: It was kind of textbook in my case. Secrets of him giving me alcohol in the rectory, at dinners we could go out and I’d be 13, 14 years old. He could order two drinks and pass one over to me. That was the first experience of actually being molested.
Gonzales: The abuse went on for years. It finally ended shortly before this photo was taken.
Romo: I felt so much shame and so much ambivalence. On one hand I liked working in the rectory. I loved having access to a refrigerator that was full. My refrigerator a lot of times was empty. To get the attention from a father figure.
Gonzales: Daniel escaped that fate. In fact, his strict upbringing may have saved him from his parish priest, “Big Al,” as father Ramos was known, because Daniel wasn't allowed to go on field trips or sleepovers.
Olivas: I remember that some of us were jealous that father Al, the hip, cool Chicano priest would be paying attention to only certain boys. Of course, it all makes sense now.
Gonzales: Father Ramos was eventually dubbed the “King of County Pedophiles” by at least one reporter because he had so many victims. He died in 2004 without being prosecuted.
It seems it wasn't just by chance that pedophile priests were assigned to parishes in Daniel and Jaime's neighborhoods. “SoCal Connected” has done a comprehensive data analysis of thousands of pages personnel records released by the church in January.
We tracked every accused Los Angeles priest found in those files since 1932. According to our analysis, over that time, 63 percent of the parishes in Los Angeles have had at least one priest on staff who’d been accused of sexual abuse. We also found some parishes had many more, like St. Alphonsus, which had eight; and Sacred Heart of Los Angeles, which had seven. At least 15 other parishes have had five or six accused priests. And our analysis showed many abusive priests served in Latino communities.
Richard Sipe/Former priest and author: That's the pattern. That the poorer parishes, the Latino parishes, Latinos are much more reluctant to buck a priest.
Gonzales: Author and former priest Richard Sipe is a national expert on the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals and has spent 40 years studying the topic.
Sipe: I think the Latino community in the end is going to be very, very angry that they were used. They literally were dumped on, and I think your figures are going to show that.
Gonzales: Our data shows that out of the top ten parishes with the most accused priests, half are in Latino communities.
Attorney John Manley has spent 20 years suing the Catholic Church on behalf of sexual abuse victims.
Manley: What do you think people in Brentwood would've done at St. Thomas Moore, if it was found Eleuterio Ramos was raping the children of celebrities? They’d have tarred and feathered him?
Gonzales: The Los Angeles Archdiocese is the biggest in the nation. It also has the most abusive priests – at least 260. And it's the one with the biggest legal payout: close to a billion dollars.
And it was also home to what was called the "L.A. Model," a program that quietly put sexual abusive priests in desk jobs around the dioceses and even helped them find outside employment.
Father Stephen Rosetti [on audio tape]: We're seeing a little bit more of this these days, temporary secular employment. L.A. was the first one that spoke to us about this and we liked the model.
Manly: That's father Stephen Rossetti talking to a bunch of diocesesan officials about how to handle a child molester.
Gonzales: At the time, Father Rossetti was the director of a facility where abusive priests were sent for treatment. “SoCal Connected” obtained tapes of a 1996 lecture he gave to church officials called "Post Treatment Options for Clergy Perpetrators.” Essentially, what do we do with these problem priests?
On the tapes, which are being broadcast here for the first time ever, Rossetti can be heard giving what were in the mid-90s acceptable options for dealing with accused priests. That includes the L.A. model, which was adopted by other dioceses across the country.
Rossetti [on audio tape]: Let’s say you've got someone who is a good prospect, has done well in treatment but you're not quite sure. You say to yourself, “Well, maybe.” Well, one of the things you can do with a guy like that is, say, “Look, how about if you work full time in lay employment,you find yourself a job, you work full time for one to three years we'll review your case later.”
Manly: What he's talking about is Los Angeles had a pilot program where they would not report – of course they wouldn't report a child molester to the police, who would do that? What they did is they took molesters who had been to treatment, treatment for pedophilia, and put them in civilian jobs. Didn't tell the people that were employing them that they’d been to treatment for pedophilia, and they watched them. And then they might put them back in ministry.
Gonzales: Rossetti also suggests that certain bishops were more receptive than others to welcoming abusive priests.
Rossetti [on audio tape]: There actually are some bishops, whose names we hold closely to our hearts and will never release, who are more likely to take a good treatment prospect.
Gonzales: Recently released church personnel files suggest Cardinal Roger Mahoney fits that description. And he seemed to play a role in “the L.A. model." What’s unclear is how many Los Angeles priests were part of that experiment.
“SoCal Connected's” analysis shows several priests suspected of molestation received help securing secular employment in and out of the diocese. This “L.A. model” was just one of several suggestions father Rossetti had for dealing with problem priests across the country.
Rossetti [on audio tape]: So the next one is retiring, and many times that works because the guys are older when the offenses are surfaced. Now the issue of laicization...
Gonzales: That refers to returning a priest to layperson status.
Rossetti [on audio tape]: Basically right now, Rome is not involuntarily laicizing men for sexual misconduct issues. They’re just not doing it. So basically what that means is you're stuck with the person.
Gonzales: Then he offers "clerical warehouses," “just someplace to put the guys” – the "unassignables."
But even that, Rossetti says, is not much of a solution, especially if you’re dealing with a priest that just isn't getting better with treatment.
Rossetti [on audio tape]: One bishop, actually one major superior, called me up and said “Steve, I’ve got this guy, he's been through 26 treatment programs.” I thought he was kidding. I said, “Really, you really put a lot of money into this guy.” He said, “Yeah, 26 programs." I said “Well, there is no sense sending him here because you might get him off your hands for six months, but he's probably not going to get any better after 26 programs. So what are you going to do with him?”
Gonzales: Rossetti also discusses fears of multi-million dollar court cases. And towards the end of the lecture, he turns to yet another problem: disclosure. Who do you tell about a problem priest?
Rossetti [on audio tape]: Let's say you take a guy who’s been cruising the pickup joints, and you send him back to a ministry. Again, whom do you tell? Well, imagine if he goes back to a nursing home, and do you want to go around to all the 85-year-old residents and tell them that your chaplin used to have a problem molesting minors, or used to cruise the joints, or it’s a problem flashing himself, you know? You see what I mean? It’s a tough problem.
Gonzales: One of the L.A. most notorious priest cases seem to have been handled that way. Almost no one was told about Father Michael Baker's history of molestation when he was moved to St. Columbkille.
Manly: They put him in a Latino parish with immigrants who are unlikely to report, didn't tell the pastor, didn't tell the parents, didn't warn anybody. And he went on to rape them. I mean, what a surprise.
Gonzales: Baker is known to be one of the archdiocese's most prolific pedophiles, with victims allegedly as young as five. Church files show little was done over the years when parents complained.
Sipe: I can't tell you how many times I’ve heard that people went to the bishop, they complained about the priest, and the bishop said, “I’ll take care of it.” That was a standard response, “I'll take care of it.” Now this experiment came out of that kind of thinking. “This is a church problem, I’ll take care of it.”
Gonzales: In an email to “SoCal Connected,” Father Rossetti said his positions have evolved over the years and he now supports a zero tolerance, victim-first policy. He also predicts the next wave of priest sex scandals will unfold worldwide. He's probably right. Several priests, who were kicked out of the L.A. Archdiocese for alleged sexual abuse are now in the Philippines and Mexico.
And here locally, former priests accused of sexual misconduct have blended into communities across the southland. Most were never charged with a crime so the allegations against them live in lawsuits and personnel files out of reach for most of the public.
And even those who were criminally convicted, like Michael Baker, are not easy to find. Baker's now out of jail, having served 4 years for child rape. But the public doesn't know where he is; his name doesn’t appear on the Megan’s Law database.
Manley: You know what's funny about Michael Baker and all these pedophiles? I don’t ever remember a single deposition in the 20 years I’ve been doing this, where a bishop actually ever yelled a priest for doing this. “What the hell are you doing? What the hell are you doing?”
Gonzales: The L.A. church scandal did force some changes: tougher background checks and a mandate to call the authorities when an abuse claim is made. Still, the church is fighting back against new requirements that could cost them millions.
Last year, the California Catholic Conference wrote this letter of opposition to the state assembly public safety committee, urging a "no vote" on a bill that they feared would "revive claims that are currently barred" by allowing a short extension of child abuse statutes of limitations. It also would've tightened background checks on workers and volunteers. The bill died in committee but will likely be reintroduced this year, and the church is expected to oppose it.
Meanwhile the man at the center of L.A. scandal, Cardinall Roger Mahoney, has apologized and been stripped of his administrative duties, but “SoCal Connected” has learned despite complaints from priests and parishioners, he's scheduled in May to preside over several confirmations at parishes across the southland.
As for friends, Jaime and Daniel, the L.A. Catholic Church scandal in some ways, launched careers for both of them. Both are published authors who write about church sex abuse. Daniel's work is fictional, while Jaime's is very real. He's now a counselor for other victims.
Romo: I totally have a mission and a focus, and that's about promoting healing and helping end abuse. And I know what it’s like to be victim and a survivor. And I don't consider myself those things. If anything, I would consider myself more of a thriver, maybe somewhere in between. But that's been a really long and solitary road, for the most part, because I think a lot of people who do have that betrayal and deep, deep wound don't survive.