Battling the 'Bunker Mentality'
Legislator; Lawyer Work to Give Victims Day in California's Courts

National Catholic Reporter [Los Angeles CA]
April 26, 2003

"This man is the reason we just got that legislation through," said California State Sen. Joe Dunn, acknowledging police officer Manuel Vega.

Vega -- doing his bread-and-water Holy Week fast outside the Los Angeles cathedral in an attempt to convince Cardinal Roger Mahony to release all the internal archdiocesan files on priests -- had testified in Sacramento.

One result: A 12-month clock is running on the filing of criminal charges in sex abuse cases. The clock that has plagued investigating detectives was recently modified.

Meanwhile, as the sidewalk conversations proceeded, former priest Michael Stephen Baker in Los Angeles Superior Court was being ordered to criminal trial on 29 felony charges of molestation. Baker, one of more than 100 Los Angeles priests being investigated, told Mahony in the mid-1980s that he had molested children, but Baker continued to periodically serve in parishes. He retired in 2000.

Dunn, a leader in Sacramento in seeing that two statutes of limitation on sex abuse cases were lifted, said, "The issue is on everyone's radar screen in Sacramento. We'll stay involved as a legislative body until the victims have had their day in court."

The legislator said he has fielded calls from other state legislatures, such as New York's, and was a conduit for information shared with Illinois legislators who passed a significant new statute on the matter.

On the possibility of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning some of this legislation, Dunn said, "That's the belief of lawyers who have historically represented the church on issues of this type.

"Myself and other lawyers [in Sacramento] spent a lot of time crafting the language of both last year's and this year's legislation to ensure it was as tight as possible to minimize any chance there would be a successful constitutional challenge or a challenge on other legal grounds," he said.

"You can never guarantee with the judicial system," said Dunn, "but we crafted with an eye assuming there would be a challenge by the church or other stakeholders involved."

His political take on the wider fallout of the sex abuse crisis is that the cover-ups will add to the existing public cynicism toward institutions in general.

Americans lost their innocence with John F. Kennedy's assassination, he said, "because there was such suspicion that there was more to that assassination than met the eye. That started a generation of cynicism toward officials and government entities that was fed further by Watergate and so forth.

"Now," he said, "even when government tries to do that right thing, people on the street are cynical about it. This situation involving sexual abuse of children and the cover-up may call into question not the [people's] faith but their trust in the religious institutions. Not only the Catholic church but others -- it's not just the Catholic church.

"If religious institutions, including the Catholic church continue with what I label the bunker mentality," he said, "and try to prevent any spotlight from being shined on any dark corner, then that breach of trust is going to grow in the coming years. The cynicism is going to settle in and our religious institutions, which are necessary for our survival as a society, will begin to crumble.

"So the real challenge right now," said Dunn, "is how our religious leaders handle this crisis. I wish I could say I have seen some ray of hope so far, but as the lawyers for the church have simply been an obstacle every step of the way, I'm not optimistic."

Attorney Larry Drivon -- who had Mahony, former bishop of the Stockton, Calif., diocese, on the stand in a 1980s sex abuse case there -- added that the sex abuse charges being pressed by plaintiffs and police "don't have anything to do with religion, anything to do with the Catholic church."

Drivon, who has sued groups such as the Boy Scouts and the Little League in sex abuse cases, continued, "What it has to do with is the commission of felonies on children, and the covering up of those felonies by those who are supposed to be taking care of the children and supervising what's going on. This is not an attack on the Catholic church -- as much as some would like it to be characterized that way."

-- Arthur Jones


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