June 6, 2007 / 1:00 AM / 12 years ago

Mexican cardinal faces grilling on priest abuse

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Cardinal Norberto Rivera, Mexico’s most senior Roman Catholic clergyman, will be questioned by lawyers and may have to appear in a U.S. court over accusations he protected a priest wanted for sexually abusing children, Rivera’s spokesman said on Tuesday.

Rivera, who was considered an outsider candidate to succeed Pope John Paul II, will be questioned in Mexico City in coming weeks, spokesman Hugo Valdemar said.

Rivera may have to appear in a Los Angeles court to defend himself against accusations he conspired to protect the priest, who is wanted for raping dozens of children in the United States and Mexico.

In September, lawyers for former altar boy Joaquin Aguilar Mendez, who says he was raped by Father Nicolas Aguilar in Mexico in 1994, named Rivera along with Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles in a U.S. civil lawsuit.

The suit accuses the cardinals of obstructing justice, negligence and conspiracy to help the priest escape.

Rivera denies the accusations and says the Los Angeles court has no jurisdiction over him. Lawyers for the plaintiff say that by questioning Rivera in Mexico they can prove the court has the right to hear the case.

Rivera is accused of sending Father Nicolas Aguilar to Los Angeles to avoid an abuse scandal in Mexico. Mahony is accused of allowing the priest to flee back to Mexico after a U.S. warrant was issued for his arrest.

In a sworn affidavit, Rivera said he had used secret church code in a letter to tell Mahony that Father Aguilar was homosexual, but that he had no knowledge of the pedophilia accusations.

Mahony denies having ever received such a letter.

Jeff Anderson, an attorney for plaintiff Aguilar Mendez, called Rivera’s declaration “extraordinary.”

“Either one or both of them is lying. It is the first time that cardinals under oath have pointed the finger at one another,” he said.

Valdemar said Anderson and the Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, which helped bring the lawsuit, were “immoral” and trying to destroy the Catholic Church.

The U.S. Catholic Church has been tarnished by a pedophile priest scandal that erupted in Boston in 2002 and spread to dioceses across the nation. The church has spent millions of dollars to settle lawsuits stemming from the scandal.

Valdemar said if the court decided it had jurisdiction, Rivera would be happy to give evidence in Los Angeles.

“We would not have a problem with going to the court because we have evidence that proves the cardinal’s innocence,” he said.

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