Told by two families that a visiting priest was suspected of molesting their children in 1988, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles did not immediately notify police. Instead, Cardinal Roger Mahony's right-hand man alerted the priest -- a heads-up that allowed him to flee the country for Mexico.
He remained in the priesthood there for another 21 years, allegedly continuing to molest. He has denied the accusations and remains a fugitive.
Newly released church documents show the behind-the-scenes machinations of top officials within the Los Angeles archdiocese making decisions on how to deal with pedophile priests, hindering police investigations and saying, in private, something completely different than what they said in public.
Mahony, one of the most powerful men in the Catholic Church in America at the time, received constant updates on molesting priests and sometimes gave orders on how to deal with cases, including once telling subordinates to deny a police request for a list of altar boys. In at least one case, minute details like retirement benefits were discussed for an admitted molester.
On Saturday, Mahony faced a deposition, answering questions on his handling of the abuse scandal for the first time since the documents' release.
He will journey next to Rome to join the conclave to decide the next pope -- a decision that has stirred controversy among advocates of abuse victims and many Catholics.
Anthony De Marco, an attorney who has spent decades representing abuse victims, said the newly released documents surprised even him, because they show "how frequently there was correspondence back and forth between Cardinal Mahony and his top assistants and others after a priest was accused."
"We know a lot more about his conduct and his words now than we ever have, and I believe that's going to make for a much more thorough deposition," said De Marco, ahead of the deposition he was scheduled to lead.
The archdiocese had fought for years against the documents' being made public. But a judge ordered the release of the material -- more than 12,000 pages that detail the extent of sexual abuse within the archdiocese dating back to the 1930s.
"I find these files to be brutal and painful reading," Archbishop Jose Gomez said in rebuking Mahony, his predecessor.
Still, Gomez supports Mahony on his journey to Rome, where he will join the papal conclave in the Sistine Chapel to choose the next pope. In a letter to priests within the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Gomez asked them "to pray for Cardinal Mahony as he fulfills this sacred duty as Cardinal Elector."
"I am confident that Cardinal Mahony's accomplishments and experience in the areas of immigration, social justice, sacred liturgy, and the role of the laity in the Church will serve the College of Cardinals well," Gomez said.
'The children are not traumatized'
The case of the Rev. Nicolas Aguilar-Rivera is a microcosm of the larger abuse crisis within the church. It was expected to be at the heart of the deposition.
At a time when the archdiocese was widening its base within the ever-growing Latino community in Southern California, Aguilar-Rivera came to the United States from Mexico, in March 1987. Aguilar-Rivera's bishop in Mexico had asked the Los Angeles archdiocese to take him in.
The archdiocese welcomed him and found a spot for him in two parishes where parents trusted him with their children, unsupervised.
"He even used his status as a newcomer, his need to learn English, as his ruse for getting children alone," said Terry McKiernan, founder of the church watchdog group BishopAccountability.org. "It's one of the most extreme combinations of devout Catholic people very open to a priest, very respectful of him, and the callousness and carelessness of hierarchy on both sides of the border about the dangers that this priest posed."
McKiernan added, "This is a man who was a total predator, whose entire life and being seemed to be focused on abusing children."
Once in the United States, Aguilar-Rivera was first sent to work at Our Lady of Guadalupe, a church with a largely Mexican-American population in East Los Angeles. The bishop for that area, Juan Arzube, Mahony's vicar general for the San Gabriel Region, had once been accused of molestation and often lobbied on behalf of molesting priests, arguing they deserved to be forgiven, the documents show.
Arzube denied molesting any children himself, but admitted under deposition to being alone with altar boys on many occasions in his rectory apartment. His name was part of a massive civil lawsuit settled with accusers in 2007.
Arzube's cavalier attitude toward sexual abuse is summed up in a 1980 document in which he lobbied for reinstatement of a priest who had been stripped of his duties, for a second time, because he molested altar boys. "How many priests are there completely guiltless over a period of 10 years?" said Arzube, who died on Christmas Day in 2007 at age 89.
The first inkling of Aguilar-Rivera's alleged -actions in America came on Friday January 8, 1988, when two families -- "all trustworthy people" -- informed their pastor that they believed their children had been molested. The priest, in turn, told Thomas Curry, the vicar of clergy and Mahony's second in command.
One incident "happened at Christmas when Father visited the other family," Curry told Mahony in a letter dated January 10, 1988. "There was a good deal of drinking, and the family asked him to stay. He slept in the room with the children and is supposed to have gotten into bed with one of the boys that night."
The principal of the boys' school, Curry noted, had been informed of the accusations and "will be obliged to report it to police."
But the church didn't respond by first alerting police. Instead, Curry met with Aguilar-Rivera at the church the day after the allegations were made, a Saturday morning, and informed him that a police investigation would be launched.