LA Catholic archdiocese wants key clergy abuse suit tossed

Mexican citizens protest against Mexican

Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images

Mexican citizens protest against Mexican cardinal Norberto Rivera (atop the white car) as he exits the metropolitan cathedral in the Mexico city, on October 7th, 2007. Rivera is accused of offering protection to priest Nicolas Aguilar Rivera, who is investigated by the Los Angeles Police for sexual abuse of more than 100 minors, in the United States and Mexico.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles wants a judge to throw out a lawsuit filed by a man who claims he was molested by a foreign priest who remains a fugitive 25 years after fleeing to his native Mexico.

Police detectives who investigated after the Rev. Nicolas Aguilar Rivera fled in 1988 believed he molested as many as 26 children, many of them altar boys, during the nine months he spent in Los Angeles.

An arrest warrant on 19 felony counts remains in effect if he ever returns to the U.S., said Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney William Hodgman. His whereabouts are unknown.

Eleven of the priest's alleged victims, all now grown men, have filed six civil lawsuits against the archdiocese. The first of those could go to trial later this month. Plaintiff attorneys plan to call as a witness the recently retired Cardinal Roger Mahony, who was at the helm of the nation's largest archdiocese when the alleged abuse occurred.

The archdiocese, however, is fighting to torpedo the trial and has asked the judge to either dismiss the lawsuit outright or move or delay the trial indefinitely due to a "media frenzy" that could taint a jury pool.

In court filings, church attorneys detailed the hundreds of articles, national TV programs and blogs that reported on the release earlier this year of thousands of pages of confidential personnel files the archdiocese kept on priests accused of abuse, including Aguilar Rivera.

The archdiocese released the papers after a five-year legal battle with victims over the privacy rights of accused priests. Some of the files show Mahony and other top leaders maneuvering behind the scenes to shield molester priests and provide damage control for the church.

The archdiocese paid $660 million in 2007 to settle more than 500 sex abuse claims, but the current cases were not included in that. Attempts to settle the current lawsuit have so far been futile, said J. Michael Hennigan, attorney for the archdiocese.

"We want to settle. We have no doubt these children were his victims," he said. "We've had serious discussions. We're just far apart."

On Tuesday, in addition to the request to toss the case, Superior Court Judge Emilie Elias will also consider motions to move the trial to Kern or Sacramento counties — 120 miles to nearly 400 miles away — or postpone it six months or more.

The church also wants to try all the Aguilar Rivera cases at once, which would cause further delays.

Anthony De Marco, the attorney for the plaintiff, declined to comment.

The case began in 1987, when Mahony gave the priest permission to work for one year in the Los Angeles archdiocese after the Mexican cleric had been severely beaten at his parish in Tehuacan, in Puebla State.

Police found blood, hair and broken glass at the parish house and interviewed witnesses who said young men from many surrounding villages visited the priest in his bedroom and slept there frequently.

Aguilar Rivera's bishop, Norberto Rivera, wrote a letter to Mahony to tell him there had been "several accusations of homosexuality against the priest" that had not been proven, but were believed to be the cause of the attack.

Less than two months later, the archdiocese assigned the visiting priest to the first of two parishes in Los Angeles, where he almost immediately began molesting children, court documents and papers from his confidential file allege.

Plaintiffs argue that the archdiocese was negligent because Mahony should have been aware of Aguilar Rivera's alleged pedophilia because of the Mexican bishop's letter.

Church attorneys argue that Mahony would have no reason to suspect the priest of child molestation based on the correspondence, and they want the entire case tossed out. In addition, the letter was not in Aguilar Rivera's confidential file in Los Angeles but was found in Mexico's records, said Hennigan.

"Saying the guy has a history of homosexual problems is not the same as saying he abused children," Hennigan said. "It's reasonably clear that Cardinal Mahony never saw the letter and it's unclear the letter was even received."

De Marco, in court papers, also alleges that once Aguilar Rivera was in Los Angeles, a church staff member and another priest knew he was molesting children — assertions the archdiocese disputes.

When parents complained in January 1988, a top Mahony aide told the priest on a Saturday that the church would have to notify police. Aguilar Rivera said he would likely return to Mexico on Monday or Tuesday, according to memos in his confidential file.

When the church called police on Monday the priest was already in Mexico, where he has remained a fugitive for 25 years. Several people in Mexico have since come forward to accuse him of abuse after his return.

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office in 1988 filed 19 felony counts against Aguilar Rivera and forwarded the investigation to Mexican authorities for them to prosecute there in lieu of an extradition order.

Proceedings began, but at some point the case was dropped although U.S. authorities were never sure why, Hodgman said. Prosecutors in the U.S. pulled the file in 2002 and attempted to revive the case without success, he said.

Prosecutors in Puebla State declined to comment. The federal attorney general's office in Mexico City did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

With contributions by Olga Rodriguez

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