From the Los Angeles Times
Mahony Must Give D.A. Files
Supreme Court's stance on records of two priests
accused of abuse could affect many more cases.
By Jean Guccione and William Lobdell, LA Times Staff Writers
April 18, 2006
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, rebuffed Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court
in his request to keep two accused priests' personnel files private,
now must turn those documents over to a grand jury and face the
growing possibility that he may soon be forced to relinquish more
confidential church records involving alleged sexual abuse.
Attorneys for the Los Angeles archbishop had argued that all communication
between a bishop and his priests including that about allegations
of sexual abuse and resulting investigations was protected
under the 1st Amendment. In declining to hear his case, the Supreme
Court effectively let stand a California appellate court decision
that rejected the constitutional claim.
This was good news for prosecutors, who said their inability to
view such confidential records had hampered their investigation
of two priests. The documents initially will remain part of secret
grand jury proceedings but could become public later in criminal
"This will send a message that these sorts of records, this
sort of information is not something they can keep secret and away
from a lawful prosecution," said Los Angeles County Dist. Atty.
Steve Cooley. "We're entitled to go get the evidence where
the evidence exists."
Church officials called the court's decision disappointing.
"We accept the court's ruling," archdiocesan officials
said in a statement. "This ruling will have no effect on the
ongoing efforts of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to settle the
civil cases through mediation."
Because of the statute of limitations, only two Los Angeles priests
face possible criminal charges. But the archdiocese has been named
in more than 500 civil cases, filed by people who say they were
molested by priests or others working in the church.
After three years of private mediation talks, a judge in November
placed 44 civil cases on track for trial later this year. Attorneys
have requested priests' files for the cases but said they haven't
yet received a response from the archdiocese.
The high court's refusal to step in Monday may have a bearing on
those cases too, constitutional law experts said.
"The bottom line is, the same principle will apply in the
civil and criminal cases," said Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional
law professor at Duke Law School.
A church spokesman declined to say whether Mahony would fight the
release of priest files in the civil cases.
The California appellate court ruling that was left in force Monday
said "religious believers and institutions" must follow
"the rules of civil society, particularly when the state's
compelling interest in protecting children is in question."
Mahony has fought more vigorously than any other United States
prelate to block attempts by prosecutors and plaintiffs' attorneys
to gain access to internal church documents, a stance that has drawn
heavy criticism even from the U.S. bishops' own national review
Leaders of Roman Catholic dioceses elsewhere, including in Orange
County, Arizona, New Hampshire and Long Island, N.Y., have voluntarily
turned over similar files to civil authorities.
"This has been an unprecedented and titanic fight," said
Jeffery Anderson, one of the lead attorneys for the alleged victims
in the Los Angeles civil cases. "Only Mahony had the audacity
to do something like this."
With the Supreme Court refusing to take up the case, prosecutors
will within the next few days receive documents in the personnel
files of former priest Michael Baker and retired priest George Miller,
both accused of molesting children.
Cooley said he would decide how to proceed after reviewing the
21 pages of information. The documents had been held by the court
while the archdiocese challenged their release.
When the criminal investigation began in 2002, Mahony promised
to cooperate with authorities.
But months later, his lawyers asserted an array of legal privileges
including those protecting communications between a priest
and penitent to keep 3,000 pages of documents involving priests
from the grand jury.
Mahony's lawyers compared a bishop's relationship with his priest
to that of a father and son, and even of a husband and wife.
"Public disclosure of the intervention, subsequent psychological
evaluation and treatment, and discussion of restrictions on the
priests will destroy the confidentiality and trust between the bishop
and his priests, which are essential to the sanctification process,"
church attorney Donald F. Woods Jr. wrote in court papers.
Criminal prosecution of priests was crippled in 2003 after the
U.S. Supreme Court struck down a California law that revived decades-old
childhood sexual abuse cases by extending the statute of limitations.
Because of that ruling, prosecutors dismissed molestation charges
against 10 priests including Baker and an ex-seminarian.
A judge also quashed the subpoenas involving all the criminally
As a result, the grand jury investigation narrowed to only those
priests accused of molesting children since 1988, which is within
the current statute of limitations.
Baker was charged this year with molesting a boy in the 1990s,
several years after church records show he admitted to Mahony that
he had molested boys. He was sent to therapy and returned to ministry.
Neither parishioners nor police were alerted until more than a decade
later. Baker was defrocked in 2000. He has pleaded not guilty.
Miller has been accused in civil court of molesting five boys at
three parishes between 1974 and 1991. The priest, who retired in
1998, has not been charged with any crime.
In 2004, retired Judge Thomas F. Nuss rejected Mahony's 1st Amendment
argument to keep personnel files closed and ruled in Los Angeles
County Superior Court that any potential problems for the church
were outweighed by the state's compelling interest in prosecuting
That year, a Catholic national review board appointed by U.S. bishops
addressed Mahony's aggressive legal stance. The board said his legal
"argument did little to enhance the reputation of the church
in the United States for transparency and cooperation."
Matt Severson, an alleged victim of Baker who has said the priest
molested him from 1976 to 1985, applauded the high court for "allowing
the investigation of these former priests to continue."
Severson, who has filed a civil case against the archdiocese but
whose criminal case against Baker was thrown out because of the
statute of limitations, said he expected that the church documents
would provide prosecutors with more evidence, possibly including
other accusers' names.
"I just want to see this guy held accountable for some of
his crimes," Severson, 38, said. The release of internal church
documents, he said, would provide "a bit of hope" that
it might now happen.
Others waiting for their civil cases to be heard expressed relief
over the Supreme Court's stance, but said they remained frustrated
by what they saw as Mahony's attempts to wear down victims through
"We are grateful that the nation's highest court, like so
many California courts, is telling the cardinal to abide by the
laws of the land," said Mary Grant, regional director of the
Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
Times staff writer Jessica Garrison contributed to this report.