Cardinal Mahony Cites 1st Amendment to Hold LA Clergy Abuse Files

Associated Press, carried in the San Francisco Chronicle
March 3, 2003

The head of the nation's largest Catholic archdiocese has been resisting giving law enforcement documents tied to sexual abuse by priests.

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony's lawyers last week cited 1st Amendment protections in refusing to release communications involving priests being investigated for sexual abuse.

Lawyers representing Mahony and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles asserted the prelate's privilege in Los Angeles civil court, and also asserted it the week before in Ventura and Los Angeles counties. The lawyers argued that priest-bishop confidentiality is a foundation of the Catholic religion and interfering with it violates the free exercise of religion.

"It's about the right of a bishop to speak openly and candidly with his priests about the most intimate and personal of subjects without fear of being exposed to civil authorities," said J. Michael Hennigan, an attorney for the archdiocese.

The move is a switch for Mahony, who last May vowed to give law enforcement officials documents tied to clergy sexual abuse.

The 1st Amendment stance has been taken by several Catholic bishops nationwide, but their claims so far have fared poorly in court.

John Manly, a Costa Mesa attorney representing 40 alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests, said the archdiocese is "turning the 1st Amendment on its head."

"The hierarchy is asking us to take their words at face value without any objective confirmation," Manly said. "Unfortunately, they've proven themselves over time to have zero credibility on this issue."

Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the archdiocese, said the church's position will not hinder any criminal or civil investigations.

"The archbishop and the priests do not have a typical employer-employee relationship," Tamberg said. "Their relationship is much closer to that of father and adult son. There is a need for confidential, intimate communication."

He added that the church is in the process of providing objective information regarding the sexual abuse allegations that does not invade the priests' privacy.

The Los Angeles archdiocese is faced with 17 subpoenas related to former, retired or current priests. It also is in mediation talks in hopes of settling potentially hundreds of civil lawsuits involving sexual abuse by priests. Those lawsuits were triggered by a state law, effective Jan. 1, that removed the statute of limitations for one year in sexual abuse cases in which an institution knowingly employed a molester.

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