LOS ANGELES — Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, who retired less than two years ago as the leader of the nation’s largest Roman Catholic archdiocese, was removed from all public duties by his successor, Archbishop José H. Gomez, as the church complied with a court order to release thousands of pages of internal documents that show how the cardinal shielded priests who sexually abused children.
The documents, released as part of a record $660 million settlement in 2007 with the victims of abuse, are the strongest evidence so far that top officials for years purposely tried to conceal abuse from law enforcement officials. The files, which go from the 1940s to the present, are the latest in a series of revelations that suggest that the church continued to maneuver against law enforcement even after the extent of the abuse crisis emerged.
Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Curry, who was the vicar for clergy and one of the cardinal’s top deputies and his adviser on sexual abuse, also stepped down as the regional bishop for Santa Barbara, Calif.
The church had fought for years to keep the documents secret, and until this week it argued that the names of top church officials should be kept private. In letters written in the 1980s, then-Father Curry gave suggestions for how to stop the police from investigating priests who admitted that they had abused children, like stopping the priests from seeing therapists who would be required to alert law enforcement about the abuse.
Both Cardinal Mahony and Bishop Curry have publicly apologized in the past, but have said that they were naïve at the time about the effectiveness of treatment for abusers and the impact on victims.
In a letter on Thursday, Archbishop Gomez wrote that the files are “brutal and painful reading.”
“The behavior described in these files is terribly sad and evil,” he said. “There is no excuse, no explaining away what happened to these children. The priests involved had the duty to be their spiritual fathers, and they failed. We need to acknowledge that terrible failure today.”
Cardinal Mahony and Bishop Curry are still able to celebrate Mass and other religious duties. But Cardinal Mahony, a vocal advocate of immigrant rights, will no longer speak publicly, as he has done frequently since his retirement in 2011, a spokesman for the archdiocese said.
Archbishop Gomez’s move to discipline his predecessor and to accept the resignation of Bishop Curry, was unexpected and unusual. It has not been the custom of bishops to use disciplinary measures against one another — or even to issue any public criticism.
Instead, as part of the sweeping package of policies for dealing with sexual abuse that American bishops passed at the height of the abuse scandal in 2002, the bishops agreed that they would employ what they call “fraternal correction” with one another when the situation requires. Only the pope can decide to remove a bishop from the leadership of his diocese. And only the pope can defrock a priest or a bishop.
Advocates for abuse victims had called for Bishop Curry’s removal last week, and had mixed reactions on Thursday to the actions taken by Archbishop Gomez. David Clohessy, national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called Bishop Curry’s resignation “a small step in the right direction.”
But Mr. Clohessy said that the sanctions against Cardinal Mahony amounted to little more than “hand-slapping,” and are “a nearly meaningless gesture.”
Jennifer Medina reported from Los Angeles, and Laurie Goodstein from New York.