Lawsuit alleges bishops trafficked priests to avoid sexual abuse scandals

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April 4, 2013

Lawsuit alleges bishops trafficked priests to avoid sexual abuse scandals 

Steven M. Sellers

Catholic bishops in the United States, Mexico, and other Latin American countries trafficked priests to protect them from allegations of child sexual abuse and to avoid scandal in the church, according to a lawsuit filed recently in California. The action alleges a litany of negligence counts against the bishops and other unnamed employees of the church, sexual battery committed on numerous “John Doe” plaintiffs by priests dating back to the 1980s, and obstruction of law enforcement efforts to investigate the abuse. “The bishops have subjected Catholic families and children in these communities to known pedophiles, counting on the devotion and reverence in the communities to keep any further abuse by the priests secret,” the complaint alleges. (Doe v. Doe, No. BC502705 (Cal., Los Angeles Co. Super. filed Mar. 12, 2013).)

The complaint targets Nicholas Aguilar-Rivera, who allegedly molested numerous children in Mexico while serving as a priest there in the 1980s. When the abuse came to light, an unnamed bishop in Mexico facilitated the transfer of Aguilar-Rivera to California in 1987 by communicating to Cardinal Roger Mahony, “using coded language used by the bishops to facilitate the international transfer of child molesting priests,” according to the complaint. Mahony, who is now retired, assigned Aguilar-Rivera to a Los Angeles parish despite his knowledge of the allegations against the priest, and then “Father Aguilar-Rivera began having altar boys and students from the parish school come to his rectory bedroom,” the complaint alleges.

Further, despite reports of Aguilar-Rivera’s abuse at the first Los Angeles parish, the defendants allegedly reassigned him to other Los Angeles parishes, where he continued to abuse children. When additional reports of abuse surfaced in those parishes, the defendants failed to report them to law enforcement and instead met with Aguilar-Rivera and “informed him he would leave Los Angeles and go to Mexico that day,” the complaint states. During an investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department, Aguilar-Rivera was “allowed to continue working as a parish priest at numerous parishes in Mexico, where he continued to sexually molest children.” According to the complaint, Aguilar-Rivera was not defrocked until 2009.

The complaint more broadly contends that the defendant bishops and Roman Catholic institutions “have systematically for many years thwarted investigations of pedophile priests, while simultaneously attempting to pacify their victims and families through use of church loyalty,” naming eight other priests who were similarly transferred and protected from child sexual abuse allegations.

The complaint follows in the wake of a recent $10 million settlement between the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and four men who were allegedly abused by a former priest, Michael Baker, in 2007. That settlement resulted in the release of thousands of internal church documents indicating that Mahony and other archdiocese officials thwarted law enforcement efforts to investigate sexual abuse allegations against Aguilar-Rivera and other priests. The documents reveal that about 560 children were victims of sexual abuse by Los Angeles Archdiocese priests over several decades.

“Cases against religious entities are very challenging to the survivors,” said Jerome O’Neill of Burlington, Vt., who has represented plaintiffs in similar litigation against the Catholic Church. “One reason is that in most instances they were abused by the most trusted figure in their community. In the instance of a priest, Catholic children were taught to revere the priest and to accept the word of the priest over that of their own parents. The priest was identified as God's representative on Earth. Several of my clients told me that when they were assaulted it was as if God was assaulting them.”

O’Neill added that when victims of abuse come forward, they often are met by aggressive attorneys who use any legal argument to undercut the case, including statute of limitations and First Amendment defenses. “Many of the bishops, priests, dioceses, and religious orders have no qualms about misstating the facts—unless survivors’ lawyers are able to obtain the secrets contained in the documents that the defendants never dreamed would be public.”

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