Los Angeles -- A lawyer for four men who said they were repeatedly molested by a priest here decades ago filed suit today against Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, charging the cardinal with racketeering for failing to remove the priest.
The lawsuits indicated an aggressive effort to hold a respected church leader accountable for having protected the priest despite having received reports that the priest was accused of abusing the men when they were boys.
The suits - one by two brothers and another by two men identified only as John Does - were filed in civil court, but they charge Cardinal Mahony with aiding and abetting the sexual abuse by not removing the priest or keeping him away from children and with obstructing justice for not reporting the priest to the police promptly, both of which are criminal offenses.
The brothers, Andrew and Joseph Cicchillo, said that the cardinal promised them in 1991 that, in response to their complaints of the years of abuse, the priest, Carl Sutphin, would be removed. But they said they were shocked to learn this year that not only had Father Sutphin remained in the priesthood but he held a prominent position at the downtown cathedral with Cardinal Mahony.
Outraged by what they said was inaction by the church, the men chose to take their case public, and to speak openly, in order to draw attention to a cardinal who has worked hard in his own aggressive media campaign to portray himself as being completely intolerant of sexual abuse by priests.
The diocese did not respond to the lawsuits. It made an announcement today that Cardinal Mahony was hospitalized on Sunday night for a blood clot in his lung. The announcement said he was in good condition and that he was expected to remain hospitalized for several days.
Cardinal Mahony was quoted in The Los Angeles Times today as saying that he sent Father Sutphin for treatment when he received the accusations and that he believed the priest had been rehabilitated "to the extent anyone can be rehabilitated."
The cardinal said he had not forced Father Sutphin out of the priesthood because his abusive behavior took place before the archdiocese put in place a zero-tolerance policy toward abusive priests. Recently, however, Father Sutphin was forced to retire because of the accusations, church officials said, and his name was given to the police.
Capt. Sharyn Buck, the head of the juvenile crime division of the Los Angeles Police Department, confirmed that an investigation was under way and that the church was cooperating.
The Cicchillo brothers and their lawyer, Jeffrey R. Anderson, held a news conference outside the courthouse after their filing in State Superior Court and then walked to the cathedral to symbolically present their papers. The two men in the other suit, listed as John B. Doe and John F. Doe, did not come forward.
The group was met at the cathedral by a security guard who stopped them at the sidewalk, but a church worker came to the gate and accepted the papers, as numerous television cameras videotaped the event.
"Let the healing begin," Mr. Anderson said afterward, as he exchanged hugs with the Cicchillos as well as with men and women who are members of a group of victims of abuse by priests.
"As far as we're concerned," said Mary Grant, the head of the local chapter of the group, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, Cardinal Mahony "poses a greater threat than the child molesters because he protects them."
Ms. Grant added, "I'm sorry to see this happen, but it's a step closer to the court where it should be heard, the criminal court."
The Cicchillo suit says the abuse took place from 1962 through 1976 at St. Rose of Lima Church in Maywood, a few miles south of downtown, and on trips with the boys. The brothers said they were from a devout Catholic family and that they had been too afraid to report the abuse as it was happening, only later.
Andrew Cicchillo said he had been motivated to come forward because of his anger over what he described as Cardinal Mahony's duplicity. He released a letter he wrote in 1991 and said Cardinal Mahony had given his assurance that Father Sutphin would be removed from the priesthood.
But Mr. Cicchillo said that at an 80th birthday celebration for his mother a few months ago, a guest displayed a picture of church officials. Father Sutphin was in the shot, wearing his clerical collar.
"I wouldn't have done this 10 years ago," Mr. Cicchillo said. "But when I saw that, I thought this was something that just had to be done."
Mr. Anderson added: "I think we have to get the police interested in this cardinal. Until these people are held criminally and civilly liable, nothing will happen to prevent it from happening again."
Mr. Anderson filed at least four previous lawsuits this spring under the terms of federal racketeering laws, accusing American bishops, and in one case the Vatican, of conspiracy to obstruct justice. The federal racketeering statutes were written to allow victims of organized crime to sue the Mafia in civil court for financial damages. No court has ever found these laws applicable to the church's handling of sexual abuse cases, said James Geoly, a Chicago lawyer who represents a bishop who is a defendant in one of Mr. Anderson's previous conspiracy suits.