Shifts Focus to Church Documents
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS - July 16, 2003
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- With the U.S. Supreme Court striking
down a California law that made it easier to prosecute sex
offenders, a judge's decision on whether to force the Los
Angeles Archdiocese to release priests' personnel files is
taking on greater importance.
The ruling could affect the fate of scores of civil suits
against the church that are still in play after the high court
decision caused several criminal cases involving priests to
be thrown out.
At very least, accusers say, opening up the documents may
vindicate their claims.
But the judge considering prosecutors' requests to release
files is doing so in closed-door grand jury proceedings, so
it's not clear when -- if ever -- his decision will be made
The result may be more frustration for those who claim they
were molested by Roman Catholic priests and are pursuing civil
Alleged victims were already outraged last month when the
Supreme Court overturned a California law that lifted the
statute of limitations in criminal prosecution of old molestation
The ruling increased the importance of the Los Angeles Archdiocese's
files, in large part because the documents could provide fresh
evidence for prosecutors in the civil suits, which aren't
subject the statute of limitations.
``If there are cases that can still be pursued, we are going
to pursue them vigorously,'' said Jane Robison, a spokeswoman
for the Los Angeles District Attorney's office.
The Los Angeles Archdiocese -- the nation's biggest -- is
the only Catholic diocese in California that has adopted the
stance that priest personnel files are protected by the First
Amendment, though other dioceses around the country have made
``Wouldn't you think that the largest Roman Catholic archdiocese
in the country would be taking a position of openness?'' said
Katherine Freberg, an Irvine attorney who represents 112 alleged
Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Archdiocese,
said the church is not trying to create immunity for priests
serving the 5 million Catholics at 287 parishes.
``We are not concealing wrongdoing,'' Tamberg said. ``That
was not our purpose for asking that these documents remain
At issue, he said, is the sanctity of private conversations
between priests and bishops, which the church argues is protected
speech under the Constitution.
If the files are made public, Tamberg said, ``No priest will
talk to a bishop because that may end up on the front page
of a newspaper one day.''
Tamberg said the church remains committed to compensation
for victims of church abuse and is ``moving forward in good
In Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law resigned as archbishop in
December under after personnel records, made public by court
order, revealed that he and other church administrators protected
priests accused of molesting children.
``Those documents proved in great part the liability of the
supervisors,'' said Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer who successfully
argued for the release of files of imprisoned former Boston-area
priest John Geoghan.
For now, the Los Angeles files are locked in criminal court,
unavailable to prosecutors or the accusers' lawyers. The archdiocese
has said the files contain reports by people claiming abuse
by priests, psychological evaluations of the priests and transcripts
of their interviews by bishops.
Retired Judge Thomas F. Nuss, appointed special referee in
the document dispute, last week issued a confidential draft
of his decision to lawyers on both sides.
Already stung by last month's Supreme Court decision, the
accusers are bracing for another possible disappointment.
Freberg, the Irvine attorney, is proceeding ``as if we are
not getting any documents.'' She said her civil cases may
prevail based on what is said in court.
Newport Beach financial adviser Lee Bashforth, who said he
was molested by a priest as a child, insists the church documents
``have to come out.'' He said members of his support group
have been on suicide watch and he has ``barely been able to
get out of bed'' since the Supreme Court ruling.
The former priest, Michael Wempe, accused of molesting five
boys from 1977 to 1986, spent only a week in jail before the
Supreme Court decision required prosecutors to drop charges.
He maintains his innocence.
``If we can't get justice,'' Bashforth said, ``then we have
a right to know what has happened.''