In 1993, Cardinal Roger Mahony wrote to the Vatican with an urgent problem. One of his priests in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles had been accused of plying teenage boys with alcohol and molesting them, sometimes during prayer.
In less than eight years, Father Kevin Barmasse had, as one church official put it in newly released files, "left a wake of devastation that is hard to comprehend." Mahony yanked Barmasse out of his parish and wanted to make sure he couldn't return. But Barmasse appealed to the one body that could overrule Mahony: the Vatican.
"The case has been there for many, many months," Mahony wrote to one Vatican office tasked with handling priest misconduct. "The lengthy delay has created serious problems for my own credibility as a Diocesan Bishop."
In the wake of the court-ordered release of 12,000 pages of confidential archdiocese records, Mahony has been criticized for hiding abuse allegations from police and failing to protect parishioners from accused molesters. But the documents suggest that Mahony at times had to press an unresponsive Vatican to get molesting priests out of the church.
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Although local leaders had the authority to take troubled clerics out of parishes, only the pope could remove them from the priesthood entirely. And when Mahony turned to the Vatican, the papers show, he ran into a bureaucracy steeped in ritual, mired in delays and reluctant to come to terms with the burgeoning problem.
"This was not just Mahony's experience. Anyone in the world who had dealings with the Vatican in the '80s and '90s was frustrated — who's in charge, what's the procedure, how long it took," said John Allen, a correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter who has written extensively on the Vatican.
Mahony dealt with multiple offices on abuse cases, including the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office that defends church teaching and punishes those who commit delicta graviora — grave offenses. Joseph Ratzinger led the office for more than two decades before becoming Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. The pontiff recently announced that he will step down by month's end.
Mahony appeared to feel particularly impeded in dealing with Barmasse. The priest, who was accused of abusing at least eight teenage boys, had challenged Mahony's decision to remove him from ministry. As the appeal dragged on, Mahony told a Vatican official with the Congregation for the Clergy that he planned to visit Rome in December 1993. He suggested they meet in person — he would be staying, he wrote, at "Via della Conciliazione, 36 — very near to your offices." But even after his visit, the case remained unresolved.
Four months later, in March 1994, Mahony wrote: "Given the pastoral situation in the United States today, which is all too well known, Bishops need to be able to act quickly and decisively in cases of alleged clerical misconduct to assure the People of God that their rights are being fully protected."
In April, he wrote to the Vatican official: "It is now almost five months since my meeting with you and yet nothing further has come from you or your Congregation."
Another decade would pass before Barmasse was defrocked. Troy Gray, 44, who said Barmasse molested him in the late '80s while working in Tucson, cringed at the lengthy delay.