LA Cardinal Fights Document Release after Vowing Openness

By Sandra Marquez
San Jose Mercury News [Los Angeles CA]
Downloaded March 30, 2003

LOS ANGELES - Last spring, following an emergency Vatican summit on clergy sex abuse, Cardinal Roger Mahony met with a roomful of reporters to present himself as a reformer in the scandal consuming the Catholic church.

"Here in Los Angeles, our continuing progress in how we handle these matters is very gratifying," Mahony said.

Since then, the leader of 5 million Catholics in the nation's largest archdiocese has consistently said he wants to help those who were sexually molested by priests. At the same time, the archdiocese has acted aggressively to keep internal church documents concealed from prosecutors and the public.

On Tuesday, church lawyers will make their case in court, claiming that communication between Mahony and the suspected priests is protected by the First Amendment. The lawyers say priest-bishop confidentiality is a foundation of Catholicism and that interfering with it violates the free exercise of religion.

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office asked for the documents as part of cases against six priests it has charged with sexual abuse. It is looking into allegations against dozens of other priests.

Threatened with a grand jury investigation, Mahony last May pledged to turn over such documents: "We want every single thing out, open and dealt with, period," he said.

"The archdiocese has every legal right to pursue this in court, but it's important to note that they could willingly turn over those files if they wanted to," said Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office. "They have changed their stated position between one of openness to one of resistance. What they say and what they do are two different things."

Several telephone messages left for archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg were not returned.

California has become a focal point of the national sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic church thanks to a law that took effect Jan. 1. That law temporarily lifts the statute of limitations for one year for civil sexual abuse cases in which an institution knowingly employed a molester.

It is expected to allow hundreds of alleged victims to sue and could lead to millions of dollars in settlements. Hundreds of lawsuits already are being prepared under the law.

Plaintiffs' lawyers want access to the same types of church documents for their civil suits that District Attorney Steve Cooley is pursuing for the criminal cases. Some question why Mahony is trying to keep them secret if he has nothing to hide.

"He and the LA archdiocese are acting more like organized crime than organized religion at this point," said Lee Bashforth, a Newport Beach financial adviser who filed a criminal complaint last April against the Rev. Michael Wempe, a former Ventura County priest he said molested him and his brother from 1976 to 1985.

Bashforth and other plaintiffs want the internal documents to see if priests admitted their abuse and how the church hierarchy responded.

Because Bashforth filed his claim against Wempe with police in April, time is running out for prosecutors, who have a year after a claim is made to file charges.

Los Angeles prosecutors say they must see the archdiocese's internal documents before deciding whether to file charges in myriad cases involving alleged priest sexual abuse.

They have asked the state Legislature to consider extending the deadline until courts decide whether the archdiocese has a right to keep the church documents private. Without the extension, prosecutors said some 60 cases involving allegations of sexual abuse of minors could fall to the statute of limitations, allowing those priests to escape criminal prosecution.

The Legislature is scheduled to vote on the issue April 8.

"(Freezing) the statute of limitations provided by this urgency bill will protect the rights of victims in the fair administration of justice," Cooley said in a written statement.

Mahony, 67, was once viewed by some in the Catholic establishment as a serious contender to be the first American pope. He was installed as archbishop of Los Angeles in 1985 and in 1991 became the nation's youngest Roman Catholic cardinal.

He has been under increasing scrutiny the past year.

Mahony has been named as a defendant in two racketeering lawsuits accusing the diocese of covering up for pedophile priests. He also was stung by the disclosure that he shuffled an admitted child molester between parishes for a decade after the priest, the Rev. Michael Baker, told Mahony about his abuses in 1986.

The accusations are similar to those against Cardinal Bernard Law of the Boston Archdiocese, who was embattled for a year over his handling of abusive priests before resigning in December.

His resignation was hastened by the release of thousands of pages of church documents that plaintiffs' lawyers had fought to obtain. Revealed among those documents was the case of one priest who traded cocaine for sex and another who had sex with teenage girls studying to become nuns.

Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer who represents 144 sex-abuse victims of convicted Boston priest John Geoghan, said church lawyers continually made the same "prelate privilege" argument that the Los Angeles Archdiocese is making.

Judges there repeatedly ordered the Archdiocese of Boston to turn over the documents.

"The courts cannot tell a person what to believe. They cannot tell a person where to stand at the altar, for instance," Garabedian said. "But when it comes to wrongful conduct, such as conduct that relates to the molestation of children, secular law can get involved to protect innocent children."

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