LA Archdiocese Argues against Release of Priest Files
Lawyers Claim Files Are Protected by First Amendment

NBC 4 News [Los Angeles CA]
April 1, 2003

LOS ANGELES -- Lawyers for the nation's largest Catholic archdiocese argued Tuesday that personnel files of priests demanded by prosecutors and lawyers for sex abuse victims are protected by the First Amendment and should remain confidential.

Attorney Donald Woods said the records are "on the other side of the wall that separates the church from the state."

At issue during the hearing in Los Angeles County Superior Court are three kinds of records -- reports by people claiming abuse by priests, intervention interviews of priests by upper-level clergy, and psychological evaluations.

Cardinal Roger Mahony did not attend the hearing before retired Judge Thomas F. Nuss, who has been appointed special referee in the dispute and will issue a ruling after hearing arguments from both sides.

The archdiocese in a prepared statement Tuesday said the disputed records are in the possession of the court and will be handled according to the ruling by Nuss. The records were turned over as the result of previous grand jury subpoenas.

In court, Michael Hennigan, another lawyer for the archdiocese, said a Ventura County judge heard a similar request for privacy and recently ruled that such records are protected by the Constitution and can be kept confidential.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley attended Tuesday's hearing but left arguments to Deputy District Attorney William Hodgman.

"Some of the facts in these cases, your honor, would simply churn your stomach," Hodgman said. "They are simply so egregious."

Prosecutors said the records contain a wealth of information -- such as admissions of guilt -- that could be critical to criminal cases.

The district attorney's office asked for the documents as part of ongoing cases against priests charged with sexual abuse. It is also looking into allegations against a number 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 then.

However, Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, said the archdioceses has changed its position from openness to resistance.

On Tuesday, Woods contended that federal and state laws provide privacy for the records, and that prosecutors don't need the documents to pursue charges.

Concerning written allegations of abuse, the lawyer said, "these documents are no more than hearsay." A list of the alleged victims who have stepped forward has been given to prosecutors to conduct their own interviews, he said.

Records of intervention interviews are protected by California law, Woods argued. And psychological therapy reports must be kept private or few priests will come forward, he said.

"We do not dispute that priests should be prosecuted for child molestation," Woods said. But the church does "challenge subpoenas that violate spiritual-pastoral counseling."

California has become a focal point of the national sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic church because of 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.

Plaintiffs' lawyers want access to the same types of church documents for their civil suits that Cooley is pursuing for the criminal cases.

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