Los Angeles Archdiocese documents waged out of public eye
LINDA DEUTSCH, AP Special Correspondent
Thursday, November 13, 2003
©2003 Associated Press
An effort to investigate sex abuse by priests in the nation's
largest Roman Catholic archdiocese has grown into a lengthy
and complex legal battle buried under layers of secrecy.
In a case pending before a California appellate court, the
Archdiocese of Los Angeles is trying to keep out of public
view a judge's ruling on whether a grand jury investigating
clergy abuse can see church personnel records.
A tentative ruling in the matter already has been issued
by a retired judge who is working as a "special master"
dealing with some aspects of the case. But that decision is
sealed -- along with all the underlying documents.
Because the material could eventually be viewed by grand
jurors, retired Superior Court Judge Thomas F. Nuss has ruled
that everything relating to them must be sealed. He also has
decided that all hearings in the case must be conducted in
Nuss was appointed by the judge on the case to take over
some of the massive workload created by it. His job has been
to review thousands of pages of church personnel documents,
then decide whether they have to be turned over to the grand
jury. By order of the court, he's being paid $350 an hour
by the archdiocese.
The case has astounded some legal experts for its level of
"They better have something important to cover up,"
Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson said. "Otherwise,
they are wasting a lot of good will. The more secret it is,
the more tarnished the church will become."
The Los Angeles County District Attorney's office and a team
of media lawyers are challenging the archdiocese in the case,
which is scheduled for a hearing Monday before the California
Second District Court of Appeals.
Lawyers for the archdiocese say their effort is not a cover-up,
but rather a simple matter of law.
They are asserting protection under the First Amendment freedom
of religion, an extension of priest-penitent confidentiality
to cover communications between priests and their superiors,
and adherence to the grand jury process that mandates secrecy.
The archdiocese's attorneys characterize the legal battle
over the church documents as "religious persecution."
"The relationship between priest and church is a familial
relationship, such as the husband-wife privilege. It goes
to the heart of the ability to function as a church that has
a celibate priesthood," archdiocese attorney J. Thomas
Hennigan said. "These men, otherwise isolated from society,
need a place to be able to discuss their innermost problems
that is secure. It's not an effort to protect pedophiles."
But the priest-superior claim is a subject of fierce dispute.
"I'm unaware of any law that says anytime a priest talks
to anyone in the church it's covered by privilege," Levenson
Los Angeles County prosecutors and the media lawyers also
say the religious persecution argument is "nonsensical"
in a case involving access to official court records. They
argue that there are no grand jury rules covering proceedings
outside the grand jury room.
"This may well wind up in the Supreme Court," said
attorney Kelli Sager, who represents the Los Angeles Times
and the Los Angeles Daily Journal. Both seek access to the
Nuss tentative decision -- and open hearings in his court
before his final ruling.
Lawyers for the archdiocese said Cardinal Roger Mahony had
been in favor of openness but was overruled by his legal advisers.
"It was his lawyers that told him there was a limit
to what he can and can't do," Hennigan said. "He
doesn't have a choice regarding certain categories of documents."
Last May, Mahony pledged to turn over church documents, at
the time saying, "We want every single thing out, open
and dealt with, period."
Hennigan and his colleague, Donald F. Woods Jr., said Mahony
and the church are facing hundreds of civil suits in which
the internal documents could play a role if they are revealed.
Plaintiffs' lawyers believe the documents may show that priests
admitted their abuse, and will provide insight into how the
church hierarchy responded.
The circumstances bear similarities to those in Boston, where
the sex abuse scandal erupted in 2002, quickly spreading nationwide.
Church lawyers there continually made the same "prelate
privilege" argument that the Los Angeles Archdiocese
is making -- but judges ordered the Archdiocese of Boston
to turn over the personnel documents.
The files showed church officials allowed accused abusers
to shuffle between parishes, and the resulting public outrage
hastened the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law as archbishop.
Woods, however, said the comparison is misplaced because
the Boston church documents were released by church attorneys
due to overwhelming "media pressure."
Meanwhile, Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney William
Hodgman, who heads the office's sex crimes unit, maintains
an office piled high with files on alleged priestly molesters.
But his efforts to prosecute cases have been stymied by the
statute of limitations.
In part, the district attorney's office is now seeking the
church documents to see if they show evidence of more recent
abuse of minors.
Hodgman says he's prepared for a long legal fight.
"It's like Watergate unfolding," he said. "It's
history unfolding, and I don't know how it will end."
©2003 Associated Press