LOS ANGELES (AP) — Retired Roman Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony defended his tattered legacy Friday in a sharply worded letter to his successor, one day after Archbishop Jose Gomez stripped him of his administrative duties and bowed to a court order to release thousands of pages of confidential files on sexually abusive priests.
In a letter posted on his personal blog, Mahony challenged Gomez for publicly shaming him and said he developed policies to safeguard children after taking over in 1985, despite being unequipped to deal with the molester priests he inherited.
Mahony had apologized two weeks ago after another release of similar files showed he and other top aides worked behind the scenes to protect the church from the growing scandal, keep offending clerics out of state and prevent public disclosure of sex crimes committed by priests.
Gomez was well aware when he took over in 2011 of the steps Mahony had taken to develop better clergy sex abuse policies and never questioned his leadership until Thursday, Mahony wrote.
"Unfortunately, I cannot return now to the 1980s and reverse actions and decisions made then. But when I retired as the active archbishop, I handed over to you an archdiocese that was second to none in protecting children and youth," Mahony wrote.
The letter was remarkable because it revealed infighting between two highly placed church leaders when members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy rarely break ranks publicly, said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who worked for the Vatican's Washington, D.C., embassy and also has served as an expert witness for victims in clerical abuse cases.
"It is so rare because they stick together like glue," he said. "The fact that Gomez said what he said, this had to have been cleared by the Vatican, they had to have discussed this with the Vatican. Mahony took the fall."
Gomez declined an interview request from The Associated Press.
The exchange also indicates the stress Mahony is under following several weeks of damaging disclosures of priest personnel files that reveal he and a top aide, Thomas Curry, who is now a bishop, maneuvered to shield priests from prosecution, kept parishioners in the dark and failed to call police about sex crimes against minors.
Gomez's public rebuke of Mahony, 76, for failing to take swift action against abusive priests adds tarnish to a career already overshadowed by the church sex abuse scandal, but it does little to change his role in the larger church.
The archbishop also accepted a resignation request from Curry, who most recently served as auxiliary bishop in charge of the archdiocese's Santa Barbara region.
The fallout will get worse as parishioners themselves begin to read the thousands of pages of documents that are now posted on the archdiocese website.
The files were to be released as part of a record-breaking $660 million settlement with more than 500 victims of sex abuse, but lawyers for the archdiocese and individual priests waged a five-year battle to keep them sealed. On Thursday, a judge ordered them released without significant redactions after attorneys for The Associated Press and Los Angeles Times intervened.
An attorney for the media organizations contacted the archdiocese Friday with concerns that certain documents were improperly redacted.
Several of the documents in the newly released files echo recurring themes that emerged over the past decade in dioceses nationwide, where church leaders moved problem priests between parishes and didn't call police.
Studies commissioned by the U.S. bishops found more than 4,000 U.S. priests have faced sexual abuse allegations since the early 1950s, in cases involving more than 10,000 children — mostly boys.
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, leaving the door open for him to return as a priest someday.
"I am concerned that the archdiocese may later be seen as liable — for having continued to support this man — now that we have been put on notice that one of the young adults under his influence is suicidal," a top aide wrote in a memo about the priest to Mahony in 1995, urging him to stop paying benefits to the priest.
The cardinal added a handwritten note: "I concur — the faster, the better."
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.
While Gomez's decision to strip Mahony of his administrative duties and reduce his public role was unprecedented in the American Roman Catholic Church, Mahony can still act as a priest, keep his rank as cardinal and remain on a critical Vatican panel that elects the next pope.
Victims were quick to point out the contrast between Mahony's pared-down local standing and his continued position as a cardinal who travels frequently to Rome and remains in good standing there.
The decision "is little more than window dressing. Cardinal Mahony is still a very powerful prelate," Joelle Casteix, the Western regional director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said at a Friday news conference outside the Los Angeles cathedral. "He's a very powerful man in Rome and still a very powerful man in Los Angeles."
The Vatican declined to comment Friday when asked if the Holy See would follow Gomez's lead and take action against Mahony.
Tod Tamberg, the archdiocese spokesman, said he did not know if Pope Benedict XVI was aware of Gomez's actions. Mahony was in Rome several weeks ago for meetings unrelated to Thursday's announcement.
Mahony is a member of three Vatican departments, including the Holy See's all-important economic affairs office, and he remains a member of the College of Cardinals. At 76, he is still eligible to vote in a conclave to elect a new pope.
The Vatican's former sex crimes prosecutor, Bishop Charles Scicluna, has said Canon Law provides for sanctioning bishops who show "malicious or fraudulent negligence" in their work, but he acknowledged that such laws have never been applied in the case of bishops who covered up sex abuse cases.
In the past, even high-ranking members of the church hierarchy who have spoken out about how senior church officials handled clergy abuse crisis have been rebuked by the Holy See.
In 2010, for example, Viennese Cardinal Cristoph Schoenborn criticized the former Vatican No. 2, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, in an interview for his handling of a notorious sex abuse case. Schoenborn didn't use Sodano's name in his critique but was nonetheless forced to come to Rome to explain himself to the pope and Sodano.
The Vatican publicly rebuked Schoenborn, saying that only the pope has authority to deal with accusations against a cardinal.
The Vatican's silence about Gomez's actions indicates that officials there were aware of it, said Patrick Wall, a former Benedictine monk and priest and vocal church critic who consults on clergy abuse cases.
"Gomez was as brilliant as a sniper the way he orchestrated this because he did not overstep his authority against the pope and yet at the same time it appears that some type of penalty is being imposed," said Wall. "It's brilliant and this has never happened in the U.S."
Mahony will reduce his public appearances, including numerous guest lectures nationwide on immigration reform, Tamberg said. However, he remains a priest in good standing and will continue to live in a North Hollywood parish and can celebrate the sacraments with no restrictions, he said.
Mahony, who retired in 2011 after more than a quarter-century at the helm of the archdiocese, has publicly apologized for mistakes he made in dealing with priests who molested children.
He repeated that apology in his blog post Friday.
"I have stated time and time again that I made mistakes, especially in the mid-1980s," he wrote. "I apologized for those mistakes, and committed myself to make certain that the Archdiocese was safe for everyone."
Associated Press writers Shaya Tayefe Mohajer, Michael Blood and Christina Hoag in Los Angeles, and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.