How accused molester Benjamin Hawkes helped save the LA Archdiocese from bankruptcy

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Esther Miller holds a picture and the released documents as victims and their supporters hold quilts bearing portraits of abused children while gathered outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, California, on February 1, 2013.

The newly released cache of over 12,000 Los Angeles Archdiocese documents sheds new light on sexual-abuse allegations against deceased Monsignor Benjamin Hawkes – the financial wizard for the diocese between 1967 and 1985 under Cardinals McIntyre and Manning.

It’s now clear that the man who turned the archdiocese into the financial behemoth it is today was accused by one of his former altar boys of molestation that allegedly took place over a 12-year period at St. Basil’s Catholic Church in Los Angeles.

RELATED: KPCC's full coverage of the priest abuse in the LA Archdiocese

As in other parts of the country, the Hawkes case shows that the sexual abuse scandal in the church extends not only to parish priests, but also to the upper echelons of diocesan hierarchy.

Jason Berry, author of “Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church,” said former Archbishop Roger Mahony inherited “by far the wealthiest diocese in America” upon his appointment in 1985.

This enormous wealth is a big reason why the Archdiocese didn’t claim bankruptcy following the $660 million civil settlement it agreed to in 2007 with more than 500 victims of sex-abuse perpetrated by priests such as Hawkes.

Upon Hawkes’ death in 1985, the L.A. Times estimated the diocese’s worth at $1 billion. The diocese’s financial standing has taken a big hit since the settlement, though Berry said it still has the deepest pockets in America.

Hawkes’ business acumen is credited for the diocese’s financial ascendancy, according to Patrick Wall, a former canon lawyer and Church financial expert.

“Nobody doubts that,” Wall said.

Hawkes capitalized on Los Angeles’ development boom in the 1980s to turn record profits for the diocese through buying and selling of land.

Wall said Hawkes put the diocese in the black by keeping “costs down” and “eating debt away.”

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The L.A. Times outlined Hawkes' financial strategy in his obituary, noting his “management of a swelling array of investments and his purchases and sales of huge parcels of land were credited with eliminating the debt incurred by the development wave.” 

This was due to Hawkes’ ingenuity rather than Cardinal MacIntyre’s, said Wall, who said the monsignor faced many challenges upon his appointment.

“They had some pretty serious debt when Hawkes started out,” Wall said. “Cardinal McIntyre was a horrible business person.” 

Wall said Hawkes wielded the power and influence of a bishop, without actually holding the title. He used this position to intimidate priests.

“People did not like to sit down and talk with ‘Benji,’ Wall said. “He was really rough on associates that didn’t pay taxes to the diocese.”

As part of canon law, all dioceses have the right to impose taxes on their parishes, proportional to the parish’s income.

Hawkes’ 1981 memo titled “The Los Angeles Plan” is included in the recently released documents. 

In the memo, Hawkes outlined the financial organization of the Archdiocese, which is separated into nine individual corporations comprised of its various schools, societies, as well as its charitable and service organizations.

RELATED: View L.A. Archdiocese priest personnel files 

Wall called the document the “first clear explanation of how things actually work” in the diocese. The memo shows that Hawkes had his finger on every penny of the Church’s money since Archbishop McIntyre granted him power of attorney in 1965.

Hawkes wrote in the plan that he was responsible “for everything that has a dollar sign in front of it,” and claimed parishes in the diocese increased their income by 400 percent during his tenure. 

Due to the Church’s tax-exempt status, the only business income it had to report came from the sale of citrus and avocados grown at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, Calif. and advertising revenue from its internal newsletter, “The Tidings.”

These profits put the diocese in a stable and secure financial position for decades – a position that was only rocked once sex-abuse allegations against men like Hawkes came to light in court.

“God has truly provided,” the late monsignor concluded in the memo.

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