Clock Stops in Sex Abuse Cases
State extends statute of limitations
during dispute over priests' files
Alan Cooperman, Washington Post
Friday, April 4, 2003
California enacted emergency legislation Thursday
to stop the clock on its statute of limitations in child sexual
abuse cases while the Los Angeles district attorney fights Cardinal
Roger Mahony over access to priests' personnel files.
Lawyers for the archdiocese of Los Angeles argued
in court this week that the files are protected by the First Amendment
and should remain confidential. District Attorney Steve Cooley,
who has subpoenaed the records in a grand jury investigation, contends
that they could help corroborate allegations that date back decades.
The epicenter of the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman
Catholic Church has shifted this year from Boston to Los Angeles
because of the grand jury probe and a deluge of civil lawsuits that
imperil the finances of California dioceses.
The Legislature stepped into the fray after prosecutors
warned that, starting next week, some accused child abusers would
go free because a year of wrangling over the church's files has
eaten up the time in which prosecutors must file charges.
The emergency bill passed both houses unanimously
and was signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis Thursday afternoon. It
freezes the legal clock on criminal cases until the dispute over
personnel records is settled.
Facing Mahony's continued resistance, prosecutors
accused the cardinal of reneging on his promise of full cooperation.
They point to Mahony's own words from last May: "We want every
single thing out, open and dealt with, period."
Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the Los Angeles archdiocese,
denied that Mahony has changed his position or been uncooperative.
He said the archdiocese turned over the names of accused priests,
their alleged victims and the dates and other circumstances contained
in its records. But, he said, the church does not believe that it
should hand over psychotherapy reports and files on the "pastoral
counseling" of priests by their bishops.
"It's in everyone's interest for this to be dealt
with openly and honestly, so that we can begin the process of healing,"
Tamberg said. "At the same time, all the rights and privileges
of all the parties have to be weighed. That's not backing away from
openness. It's trying to reach justice in a balanced and fair way."
It is now up to a court-appointed special referee,
retired Judge Thomas Nuss, to decide whether to unseal the records.
But some legal experts predict the Supreme Court ultimately will
have to rule on the constitutional questions raised by prosecutors'
efforts to obtain church files in dioceses nationwide.
On Monday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a
related matter, the constitutionality of retroactively changing
the time limits on prosecuting old cases of sexual abuse.
Recognizing that victims often bury their experiences
in shame and silence, California's Legislature decided in 1994 to
repeal its three-year statute of limitations and allow victims of
child sexual abuse to report such crimes at any time in their lives.
But the 1994 law stipulated that once a report is
made to police, prosecutors have just one year to file charges and
must present convincing independent evidence to corroborate the
victim's story. Prosecutors believe church files could provide such
The challenge was brought by Marion Stogner, 70, who
was charged in 1998 with molesting his daughters more than three
decades ago. He contended the charges violated the Constitution's
prohibition on ex post facto laws. The California Supreme Court
rejected his argument in 1998, but the U.S. Supreme Court took it
up on appeal.
Though the charges against Stogner have nothing to
do with clergy abuse, a decision in his favor could reopen scores
of convictions in California and undermine laws in many other states
that have retroactively extended the time limits on sex abuse prosecutions.
California also has made a huge change in its statute
of limitations on civil lawsuits, opening a one-year window in 2003
for victims of child sexual abuse to file claims, no matter how
long ago the abuse occurred. The resulting deluge of about 300 suits
threatens the finances of dioceses statewide, including the large
archdiocese of Los Angeles, which forecasts a budget deficit of
$5.7 million this fiscal year and has cut 60 staff positions.