LOS ANGELES — Cardinal Roger Mahony, who retired with a tainted career after dodging criminal charges over how he handled pedophile priests, was stripped of his archdiocese duties in an unprecedented move by his successor, who described the Roman Catholic church's actions during the growing sex abuse scandal as evil.
It wasn't clear whether the Vatican supported Archbishop Jose Gomez's decision to publicly criticize his former boss. The announcement was seen as long overdue by victims and surprising to church experts who said it was unusual for an archbishop to take action against a higher up.
The move came as the church was legally forced to release thousands of confidential files on pedophile priests — and two weeks after other long-secret priest personnel records showed Mahony worked with top aides to protect the church from the engulfing scandal.
One of those aides, Monsignor Thomas Curry stepped down Thursday as auxiliary bishop in the Los Angeles archdiocese's Santa Barbara region. Gomez said Mahony, 76, would no longer have administrative or public duties in the diocese. It didn't appear that Gomez's actions would affect Mahony's position in Rome, where he can remain for another four years on a counsel that selects the Pope.
"I find these files to be brutal and painful reading," Gomez said in a statement, referring to 12,000 pages of files the church posted online Thursday night just hours after a judge's order. "The behavior described in these files is terribly sad and evil. There is no excuse, no explaining away what happened to these children."
The fallout was highly unusual and marks a dramatic shift from the days when members of the church hierarchy emerged largely unscathed despite the roles they played in covering up clergy sex abuse, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit and senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
"It's quite extraordinary. I don't think anything like this has happened before," Reese said. "It's showing that there are consequences now to mismanaging the sex abuse crisis."
In an email, U.S. canon lawyer Nicholas Cafardi said Gomez was acting within his authority in preventing Mahony from having any public duties in the archdiocese.
"Basically, only the Holy See can sanction a cardinal," he said. "It is fair to say that Gomez' authority only runs to the limits of the archdiocese.
"Still, do not underestimate the importance of one bishop publicly criticizing another. That is huge."
Several of the documents released late Thursday echo recurring themes that emerged over the past decade in dioceses nationwide, where church leaders moved problem priests between parishes and didn't call the police.
In one instance, a draft of a plan with Mahony's name on it calls for sending a molester priest to his native Spain for a minimum of seven years, paying him $400 a month and offering health insurance. In return, the cardinal would agree to write the Vatican and ask them to cancel his excommunication.
It was unclear whether the proposed agreement was enacted with the Rev. Jose Ugarte, who had been reported to the archdiocese 20 years earlier by a physician for drugging and raping a boy in a hotel in Ensenada, his file shows.
"He has been sexually involved with three young men in addition to the original allegations," Curry, then Mahony's point person for dealing with suspected priests, wrote in 1993.
In another case, Mahony resisted turning over a list of altar boys to police who were investigating claims against a visiting Mexican priest who was later determined to have molested 26 boys during a 10-month stint in Los Angeles.
"We cannot give such a list for no cause whatsoever," he wrote on a January 1988 memo.
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