Judge to Determine Whether L.A. Archdiocese Should Relinquish Documents

March 17, 2003


To Lee Bashforth, the notion is simple.

If there's nothing in the church files, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles should have no problem giving them to authorities seeking to prosecute Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse.

"It's justice that will allow us to go on with our lives," said Bashforth, who along with his brother Mark, is suing the archdiocese for alleged sexual abuse by a Ventura County priest in the 1970s.

A judge may soon decide the fate of documents in his and other cases.

A Los Angeles Superior Court hearing set for April 1 is expected to determine whether Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and priests under investigation for alleged sexual abuse have a right to keep internal church documents private.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles has been withholding hundreds of documents that it says are protected under the Constitution.

Investigators and prosecutors want the documents to help corroborate claims of alleged sexual abuse by priests before the one-year statute of limitations expires on such cases.

They believe that admissions of criminal acts with minors are included in the documents and medical records the church is trying to keep secret.

"We believe that often the priest admitted the conduct. That's huge evidence in proving someone's guilt," said Ventura County Chief Deputy District Attorney Michael Frawley, whose office is investigating cases involving at least four priests and about 20 victims.

Archdiocese officials said they have been providing investigators with information but some documents cannot be given to civil authorities without infringing on the church's free exercise of religion.

J. Michael Hennigan, a lawyer for the archdiocese, said he would like to see the battle over records resolved in a way that works for both sides. He denied any suggestion that Mahony is trying to protect himself and other archdiocese leaders from any smoking gun.

"Certainly there's nothing I'm aware of that would incriminate any archdiocese official," Hennigan said.

He also suggested that in civil cases some victims don't want their cases resolved.

"I think that honestly there is a strong constituency that just wants this to be in the newspapers," he said. "My job is to get this out of the newspapers. I want this to be part of our past and not our present."

State legislators are considering extending the deadline to file criminal charges until courts decide whether the documents can be disclosed.

"Let's not have an arbitrary one-year time limit interfere with that process of justice," said Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, who introduced the bill.

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