VATICAN CITY — As the world's cardinals meet before the conclave to discuss some of the challenges facing the church, U.S. Cardinal Roger Mahony said he hoped to offer them some of the lessons learned from the sex abuse crisis.
The retired archbishop of Los Angeles said the biggest mistake was not understanding the true nature of the crime by believing the problem of adults abusing children was merely a moral problem.
"Many of us in the church saw this calamity, through the lens of the church, as a sin and a moral weakness," he told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera March 5. The interview was published in Italian.
While abuse is both, he said the church confused its moral view "with what was necessary to solve the problem."
"I had not understood the true nature of the problem and that those who abuse -- not just in the church -- continue to perpetrate their crimes," he said.
He said he hoped to offer to the other cardinals attending the pre-conclave meetings "my experience heading (the Archdiocese) of Los Angeles during the years of changing the approach to the crime of sexual abuse."
"These things were not as well understood then as they are now," he said.
The cardinal said he had taken the approach that was being recommended for all institutions by various psychiatry and psychology studies at the time, which included referring suspected abusers for treatment.
"We tried to follow the best practices of that time," the 77-year-old cardinal said.
However, as soon as it was clear that approach had been wrong, "I did everything to remedy these crimes," he said.
The cardinal explained how, starting in 1994, the archdiocese established a Sexual Abuse Advisory Board to investigate accusations of abuse, enlisting the help of a lay judge, psychologists, criminologists and parents of victims. The archdiocese was one of the first in the U.S. to create such a board.
"My mistake, quite grievous, was to not let the board's duties include old cases. I was too focused on new cases. But it was a mistake I completely fixed in 2002," when he strengthened existing procedures, he said.
Cardinal Mahony has publicly stated he made mistakes during his tenure as archbishop, apologized for the errors and underlined his commitment to making the archdiocese safe for all children.
The cardinal's successor, Archbishop Jose H. Gomez, announced Jan. 31 that Cardinal Mahony would "no longer have any administrative or public duties" in the archdiocese because of past failures to protect children from clergy sex abuse. The cardinal remains a bishop in "good standing," with "full rights to celebrate the holy sacraments of the church and to minister to the faithful without restriction," Archbishop Gomez said.
Archbishop Gomez's announcement came the same day the archdiocese released 12,000 pages of personnel files of clergy who were the subject of a 2007 global abuse settlement, along with supporting information that includes the names of members of the hierarchy involved in the handling of abuse allegations.
The personnel files suggested that Cardinal Mahony, who headed the archdiocese from 1985 until his March 2011 retirement, worked to protect accused priests from criminal investigation beginning in the 1980s.
Advocates for sex-abuse victims urged Cardinal Mahony to abstain from voting in the election of a successor to retired Pope Benedict XVI because of evidence that he mishandled abuse cases.
The cardinal told the Italian daily that "it was a difficult moment for me personally" to hear such calls for him to stay home "because, after 20 years, people started talking about the abuse as if, in the meantime, we had been doing nothing."
He said he had no problem talking about what had happened in his archdiocese and admitting things had not been handled correctly because "it's the right thing that the public know the reality" of the sex abuse crisis in the church.