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Abuse Charge Rocks L.A. Archdiocese

In an extraordinary public statement, the head of the nation's largest Roman Catholic archdiocese said he has been accused of sexually molesting a high school student 32 years ago. But contacted Saturday, the woman who made the allegation offered no details of what she claims Cardinal Roger Mahony actually did.

Mahony himself revealed the molestation claim - and strongly denied it - in a three-page statement on Friday night. He issued the statement after a Los Angeles radio station revealed a group of leaked church e-mails about abuse cases that refer briefly to the woman's claim.

Separately, in what lawyers say would be a first in the nation, a Long Island district attorney is seeking to convene a special grand jury to investigate child-sex allegations against priests, according to a published report.

Mahony's statement gave no specifics about what sort of abuse the woman, Flora Mae Hickman, said had occurred. And hours later, in an interview with The Associated Press at her Fresno apartment, Hickman said she couldn't recall much of what she says had happened that day in 1970.

Hickman, now 51, said she was knocked unconscious while fighting with other students at San Joaquin Memorial Catholic High School in Fresno. She said she woke up, found the "bottom" part of her clothing missing and saw Mahony, then a monsignor in Fresno, standing over her.

"When I came to, Monsignor Mahony was there, and part of my clothing was removed. I can't remember exactly what happened," she said. "He was the one that was over me when I opened my eyes. I can't remember what happened after that."

She said she is a disabled former fast-food worker who is taking antidepressants. She also said a psychiatrist told her she was a paranoid schizophrenic.

She said she couldn't describe the incident in more detail, but she insisted: "I'm not making this up. I know this is a serious allegation. This has been eating at me. I did call police when I was out of high school. They didn't believe me."

When asked by AP Network News for clarification whether she was truly sexually molested, she answered: "Yes. I'm going to stick with it and I'm not backing down."

She also described a second incident in which she said she was kicked "in the back of my head and then I saw Cardinal Mahony."

The AP does not identify alleged victims in sexual assault cases unless they agree to allow their names to be used. Hickman at first asked that her name not be used, but later changed her mind. Her name was included in Mahony's statement.

"My life has been hard because of the incidents," Hickman said. "I live by myself; I have no one to talk to."

She said she had kept silent out of fear, but decided to speak up after seeing more and more Catholics allege that they had been abused by priests.

"If these people have the courage to do it, then I'm going to try to do it," she explained.

Mahony, 66, became head of the Los Angeles Archdiocese in 1986 and was elevated to cardinal in 1991. He is believed to be the highest-ranking sitting church official to be accused of sexual misconduct in the scandal that has engulfed dioceses across the country in the past few months.

In his statement, he denied Hickman's claim and said he had called for both church and law enforcement officials to investigate.

"My personal integrity and reputation demand that I take all possible steps to refute this false allegation," Mahony said.

He said Hickman contacted the pastor of St. John's Cathedral in Fresno on March 20 and told Monsignor John Esquivel she had been molested. Mahony said he did not recognize the woman's name as someone he had ever met, adding that his contact with the school was limited to occasionally celebrating Mass.

Church officials in Fresno interviewed Hickman for two hours on March 25 and turned a transcript of that interview over to Fresno police, Mahony said.

Lt. Tony Bennink of the Fresno Police Department said he couldn't confirm whether an investigation was under way.

The Vatican declined Saturday to comment on the case.

The archdiocese serves 5 million Catholics in three Southern California counties. Los Angeles police have said they are investigating reports that the diocese has removed six to 12 priests accused of sexual abuse in cases dating as far back as 10 years.

Earlier Friday, approximately 60 leaked e-mails from Mahony and other archdiocesan officials were released by Los Angeles radio station KFI-AM. In one of them, Mahony urges church officials to get a transcript of the woman's interview to the Fresno and Los Angeles police departments and suggests he is willing to be interviewed by detectives.

In another, Mahony says the church should have reacted sooner to the string of sexual abuse allegations against priests.

And in another e-mail, his attorney, Sister Judith Ann Murphy, prepares two monsignors for interviews with investigators in a separate case, saying: "Do not volunteer information. This is not a session to be chatty."

Church officials went to court Thursday to try to keep KFI and the Los Angeles Times from releasing the e-mails but a judge turned down the request.

KFI, which released the bulk of them Friday, said they were provided by a listener who contacted the station through its Web site.

Archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg said the e-mails were illegally obtained. FBI spokesman Matt McLaughlin said agents are investigating whether someone got them through hacking or other illegal means.

On Long Island, Newsday reports that Thomas Spota, district attorney for Long Island's Suffolk County, had filed a request to impanel a grand jury to hear evidence related to the growing sex abuse scandal.

"It's a crack in the armor," said Jeffrey Anderson, a Minneapolis lawyer who has represented victims of abuse cases involving Roman Catholic priests for 20 years. "The fact is that we as a culture have pretty much trusted the Catholic church to do the right thing."

It would be the first time in the United States that a special grand jury was convened solely to conduct a broad-ranging investigation of sexual abuse allegations against priests, several lawyers said.

Since January, dozens of Catholic priests out of more than 47,000 nationwide have been suspended or forced to resign on suspicion of child molestation, in a scandal that began in Boston.

The Archdioceses of New York and Boston, as well as dioceses in Cincinnati, New Hampshire and Maine, have agreed to turn over to prosecutors information on priests accused of molesting children.

In Rome on Saturday, Pope John Paul accepted the resignation of Irish Bishop Brendan Comiskey, one of Ireland's most high-profile priests, who quit his post amid growing criticism of his handling of paedophile allegations against a local priest.

It is the second time in less than two weeks that a Roman Catholic bishop has resigned over a sex scandal. Archbishop Juliusz Paetz from the Pope's homeland of Poland quit on March 28 following accusations of molesting young priests. He denied the charges.

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