LA bishop resigns 13 years after church learned of sex claim

JOHN ANTCZAK and NICOLE WINFIELD
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This Nov. 16, 2013 photo shows the Los Angeles auxiliary bishop, Monsignor Alexander Salazar in Garden Grove, Calif. Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Salazar, following allegations of misconduct with a minor in the 1990s, officials said Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018. (Kevin Sullivan/The Orange County Register via AP)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of a Los Angeles auxiliary bishop, Monsignor Alexander Salazar, following an allegation of sexual misconduct with a child in the 1990s, officials said Wednesday.

The Vatican announced the resignation in a one-line statement. It was the latest in a string of misconduct allegations against bishops to come to light this year, following the scandal of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington that exposed how bishops have largely avoided punishment for improper behavior.

Pasadena police recommended in 2002 that Salazar be charged with committing a lewd act on a child, but prosecutors declined to bring charges over a lack of evidence, Lt. Jesse Carrillo said. He had no further information.

The current archbishop of Los Angeles, the Most Rev. Jose Gomez, said the archdiocese learned of the claim in 2005. Gomez said the archdiocese forwarded the complaint to the Vatican office handling sex abuse cases.

Gomez said that office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, imposed precautionary measures against Salazar and that a further investigation by the archdiocese's independent review board found the allegation to be credible.

Gomez said Salazar, 69, has "consistently denied any wrongdoing." The archdiocese said it had received no other allegations against Salazar.

"These decisions have been made out of deep concern for the healing and reconciliation of abuse victims and for the good of the church's mission," Gomez told the Los Angeles faithful in a letter. "Let us continue to stay close to the victim survivors of abuse, through our prayer and our actions."

Gomez said the alleged misconduct occurred while Salazar was a parish priest in the 1990s and that the claim was never directly brought to the archdiocese.

Critics decried how long it took between the archdiocese learning of the allegation and Salazar's resignation as well as the lack of details in the announcement, which called it an "early retirement."

"It takes 13 years for LA Catholic officials to disclose this allegation and even now, they withhold key details about when they and the Vatican looked at it and purported(ly) took 'precautionary measures' against Salazar, which of course have rarely stopped more clergy sex crimes," David G. Clohessy, former director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said in an email to The Associated Press.

The law firm Jeff Anderson & Associates, which pursues litigation on behalf of alleged victims of clergy sex abuse, noted that Salazar's name wasn't included in archdiocese lists of credibly accused priests released in 2005, 2008 and this year.

"What does his resignation mean? Has he been laicized? Is he simply retired? What safety protocols are being imposed on Bp. Salazar?" the firm asked in a statement. "Why did it take the Vatican this long to act?"

The resignation comes during a year in which the clerical abuse scandal has exploded anew.

Hours after Salazar's resignation was announced, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said her office found 500 more Catholic clergy accused of sexually abusing children than the state's archdioceses have publicly identified.

In July, the pope removed McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington, as a cardinal after a U.S. church investigation determined an allegation he groped a minor in the 1970s was credible. Subsequently, several adult seminarians said he pressured them for sex.

McCarrick denied the initial allegation and said through a lawyer that he looks forward to invoking his right to due process.

The scandal exposed the loopholes in how the church treats allegations against bishops, who answer only to the pope. Bishops have largely escaped the same scrutiny as ordinary priests in the decadeslong sex abuse scandal, and until recently they have rarely been sanctioned or removed for covering up for abusers.

Salazar was born in San Jose, Costa Rica, and came with his family to the United States in 1953. They settled in Los Angeles, and he became a U.S. citizen at 18. He entered St. John's Seminary in suburban Camarillo in 1977 and was ordained a priest in 1984.

From the 1980s through early 2000s, Salazar served at several parishes before being installed as a bishop in 2004. He served as a regional bishop for San Pedro, one of five pastoral subdivisions within the archdiocese, until 2009 and since then had been vicar for the office of ethnic ministries.

A statement from the archdiocese said the accusation against Salazar was "reported directly to law enforcement in 2002 by a young adult alleging misconduct in the 1990s when Bishop Salazar was a priest and the alleged victim was a minor."

The statement said the archdiocese was informed through a third party. Law enforcement investigated and recommended prosecution, but the district attorney didn't file charges, the statement said.

The archdiocese said Cardinal Roger Mahony, the Los Angeles archbishop at the time, also reported the allegation to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

"The congregation investigated and permitted Bishop Salazar to remain in ministry subject to certain precautionary conditions, which he has respected," the statement said.

Mahony retired in 2011, his tenure tarnished by his handling of clergy sex abuse cases, and was replaced by Gomez, who publicly rebuked him.

By 2014, the archdiocese agreed to pay $720 million to abuse victims over the previous decade and released internal files showing Mahony shielded priests and ordered a surrogate to withhold evidence from police.

The archdiocese said Gomez requested a review of all allegations of sexual misconduct involving minors to update a 2004 report that listed accused priests.

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Winfield reported from Vatican City. Associated Press reporters Brian Melley in Los Angeles and Gillian Flaccus in Portland, Oregon contributed to this report.