LA archdiocese seeks to delay or move abuse trials

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Cardinal Roger Mahony (AP Photo)

Cardinal Roger Mahony (AP Photo)

LOS ANGELES (AP) – Citing the inability to obtain a fair and impartial jury in its backyard, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles has requested to delay upcoming sex abuse trials or move them out of Los Angeles.

“We think that the environment in Los Angeles today is currently hostile,” church attorney Michael Hennigan told the Los Angeles Times.

The request came after the archdiocese announced this week that it would pay nearly $10 million to settle four cases alleging abuse by now-defrocked priest, Michael Baker, who told Cardinal Roger Mahony three decades ago he had molested children. Two of the cases were set for trial next month. The church agreed to pay the plaintiffs in those cases, a pair of brothers, an unprecedented $4 million each.

After the settlement announcement, church lawyers asked a judge to relocate four lawsuits against a Mexican priest accused of abusing more than two dozen boys to a courthouse some 200 miles away in San Luis Obispo County or delay the trial for at least six months.

The archdiocese cited a report from a jury expert who described “an intense level of vitriol” in the Los Angeles area toward Mahony, who retired in 2011 after more than a quarter-century at the helm. Mahony has publicly apologized for mistakes he made in dealing with priests who molested children.

While it’s not uncommon for lawyers to argue for a change of venue in high-profile trials, experts say it’s a rare request in civil cases.

Jury consultant Richard Gabriel considered the archdiocese’s proposal a long shot.

“When you have a metropolitan area of 8 to 10 million people, it’s pretty hard to say that out of that many, you can’t find a fair and impartial jury,” Gabriel told the newspaper.

Hennigan, the archdiocese’s lead lawyer, disagreed. “It is not likely that there is anyone who has not been affected” by the publicity, he said.

In 2007, the archdiocese settled more than 500 clergy abuse lawsuits for a record-breaking $660 million. Earlier this year, a judge ordered the church to turn over thousands of pages from the confidential files of priests accused of child molestation.

The files show Baker met with Mahony in 1986 and confessed to abusing children. Mahony removed Baker and sent him for psychological treatment, but Baker was put back in the ministry for 14 years. Authorities believe Baker, who was convicted of child molestation in 2007 and paroled in 2011, may have abused more than 20 children.

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