Now retired, Cardinal Roger Mahony has apologized for his actions in the face of sexual abuse allegations involving members of the church.
A San Diego attorney who represents sexual abuse victims of Catholic priests said even he was shocked at the extensive cover-up revealed in newly-released documents.
Thousands of pages from the internal disciplinary files of 14 priests made public Monday show retired Los Angeles Archdiocese Cardinal Roger Mahony and other top aides maneuvered behind the scenes to shield molester priests and provide damage control for the church.
San Diego attorney Irwin Zalkin has represented survivors of clergy sexual abuse for the past decades and some of his clients are included in the 30,000 pages of confidential files made public.
He told NBC 7 San Diego he’s amazed at how long this scandal was covered up.
“Clearly, clearly no interest in protecting children. None,” Zalkin said. “This was all about protecting the church from scandal.”
Zalkin said his phone has been ringing off the hook with calls from victims who can't believe the size of the cover-up.
The released files are attached to a case involving Father Nicolas Aguilar Rivera, now deceased, who was accused of sexually abusing numerous children “on and off” for decades.
Rivera told the diocese of the abuse and assured them the victims would not speak because they were illegal immigrants the Los Angeles Times reports.
Documents indicate Mahony's clergy advised Rivera to flee two days before his alleged abuse was reported.
"To feel him violating me. There's smells, there's touches, there's feelings," said victim Manuel Vega. “You have to put yourself into that moment to understand what the Catholic Church is protecting.”
"We can put any of these people in jail if we want to, if the law works for the people,” said victim Jim Robertson.
While some documents may provide the strongest evidence to date that Mahony and another key official worked to protect the accused priest, legal experts say it will be almost impossible to prosecute because of problems with the statute of limitations.
The time window for prosecuting obstruction of justice is 10 years and for conspiracy, it's three years after the last overt criminal act, Lawrence Rosenthal, a criminal law professor at Chapman University School of Law told the Associated Press.
Much of the material in the files dates to the mid-1980s, when Mahony was handling some of the most troublesome problem priests.
The top aide, then-Monsignor Thomas J. Curry, is now an auxiliary bishop for the archdiocese's Santa Barbara region. He issued a public apology Tuesday, echoing a similar statement from Mahony a day earlier.
"I wish to acknowledge and apologize for those instances when I made decisions regarding the treatment and disposition of clergy accused of sexual abuse that in retrospect appear inadequate or mistaken," Curry said in a statement obtained by the Ventura County Star. ""Like many others, I have come to a clearer understanding over the years of the causes and treatment of sexual abuse and I have fully implemented in my pastoral region the archdiocese's policies and procedures for reporting abuse, screening those who supervise children and abuse prevention training for adults and children."
Mahony apologized on Monday, expressing regret for mistakes he made after taking over the nation's largest archdiocese in 1985. An attorney for the church, J. Michael Hennigan, has denied that there was a cover-up attempt. He didn't return a call from the Associated Press on Tuesday.
The files of dozens more accused priests are expected to be released in the coming weeks as part of a 2007 settlement agreement with more than 500 alleged victims.
A judge recently ruled that the church must turn the files over to attorneys for those people without the names and titles of members of the church hierarchy blacked out after The Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times intervened.
Zalkin’s clients have anxiously awaited these papers for years but now they're more upset at the church than ever.
“It's an outrageous situation. They're so offended and simply saying we're sorry or Cardinal Mahony's half-hearted apology. It just doesn't cut it,” Zalkin said.