Mahony Resources – September 2003
By Jean Guccione
With the deadline approaching to file lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles for older claims of child sexual abuse, three sisters Thursday alleged that they had been molested as children by a priest transferred to their parish after he had been accused of molesting another child.
[Photo Caption - Shared Pain: Monique Kennedy, right, is kissed by sister Wendy Kennedy at a news conference. In background are sisters Jackie Dennis, left, and Riva Kennedy who, along with Wendy, are pursuing legal action against the Los Angeles Archdiocese. Photo by Wally Skalij, Los Angeles Times.]
Retired priest G. Neville Rucker lured two of the sisters into the rectory at St. Agatha Church in Los Angeles' West Adams district in the early 1970s with oatmeal cookies, then sexually abused them, according to the sisters' lawsuits. Rucker also is accused of sexual assaults on a school playground, in church and even in the girls' home, while their mother cooked dinner for the priest.
When their parents could no longer afford parochial school, Rucker picked up the tab for all three sisters, the suits allege. And the molestation continued until one of the sisters told her parents and their father confronted church officials, according to the Los Angeles County Superior Court lawsuits.
The three suits filed Thursday accuse the archdiocese of negligence in its supervision of Rucker and conspiring to conceal from parishioners and law enforcement that Rucker was a child molester.
The women -- Riva Kennedy, 43, Jackie Dennis, 42, and Wendy Kennedy, 38 -- said Rucker had never approached them again.
Rucker, 82, was charged last year with 29 counts of molesting girls as far back as 1947 and was plucked off a cruise ship bound for Russia by authorities fearing that he would try to flee prosecution. Those charges were dropped in July after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down California's effort to prosecute molesters in decades-old cases.
"It's a horrible thing," said attorney Art Goldberg, who represents the women, at a news conference outside the downtown Los Angeles courthouse.
Rucker, Goldberg said, "got off criminally. He will not get off civilly."
Wendy Kennedy said that no amount of money could pay "for all the abuse and suffering that we went through."
Jackie Dennis said there was "absolutely no justice" for her after the criminal charges against Rucker were dismissed. She said she had dealt with the abuse by believing that Rucker was dead. When she learned otherwise, it was "like opening some terrible stab wounds," she said. It affected her husband and children as well, she said.
Lawyers representing hundreds of alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests had agreed to a temporary moratorium on filing new lawsuits as the parties tried to settle the claims. But they will begin filing hundreds of civil lawsuits as the Dec. 31 deadline approaches.
The California Legislature last year extended the statute of limitations on sexual molestation lawsuits in certain circumstances.
Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said policies had changed since then. "You can't change what happened in the past and certainly the policies that were followed 30 years ago are not the same policies that are followed today," he said.
Today, "there is no transfer of priests from place to place," Tamberg added. He declined to address the specific allegations, saying he was not in a position to know what had happened in church administration three decades ago. He noted that Cardinal Roger M. Mahony had not been archbishop at the time referred to in the allegations.
Rucker retired in 1987 and was removed from the ministry last year when he ran afoul of the archdiocese's new zero-tolerance policy for priests who molest minors.
His removal came 35 years after he was accused of molesting two 9-year-old girls at St. Anthony Parish in El Segundo during the late 1960s. Then-Bishop Timothy Manning persuaded the mother of one of the girls not to seek criminal charges.
After that, Rucker was transferred to St. Teresa Avila, then Holy Trinity Church and Holy Cross Church, and eventually St. Agatha Church in July 1970, when he met the Kennedy sisters.
Besides monetary damages, Goldberg is asking the court to establish an independent oversight board to review allegations of abuse by priests and other employees and a clergy abuse victims' awareness program.
"We have that," said attorney Donald Woods, who represents the archdiocese. He said the archdiocese established such a panel under the leadership of retired Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Richard Byrne.
Goldberg also criticized the archdiocese for not turning over internal documents to him. Goldberg said he was having trouble obtaining information about Rucker's prior assignments and earlier abuse reports.
"We want to know where he was and why they moved him and when was he sent to treatment," Goldberg said.
Woods said all parties, including Goldberg, had agreed to a procedure for reviewing the records sought by the plaintiffs. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Peter Lichtman is in charge of that portion of the case.
Many of the same documents are also being sought by prosecutors in their ongoing criminal investigation of sexual abuse by priests.
By Jean Guccione, Times Staff Writer
Prosecutors asked Friday that an upcoming ruling be made public on the legal objections raised by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles to giving prosecutors the personnel files of priests accused of molesting children.
Last week, retired Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Thomas F. Nuss blocked public access to his order, citing grand jury secrecy.
At issue are nearly 2,000 pages of church documents subpoenaed for review by the Los Angeles County Grand Jury a year ago.
Officials with Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley's office said in a letter to Nuss that the documents they seek -- including admissions of child sexual abuse by priests to archdiocesan officials investigating complaints by parishioners -- will help in their criminal investigation of alleged sexual wrongdoing by priests in the Los Angeles area.
Lawyers for the archdiocese argued that the documents are protected by the 1st Amendment right of religious freedom and numerous privileges, including those covering communications between lawyers and their clients, psychotherapists and their patients, and penitents and their confessors.
All of the pending cases against Catholic priests were dismissed earlier this year, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California lawmakers could not retroactively extend the statute of limitations for decades-old crimes.
But Friday's letter to Nuss indicates that criminal investigation into alleged crimes by priests is continuing, and more church documents will be subpoenaed.
The resolution of these claims, the letter states, "is critically important to the ongoing investigation of allegations of clergy sexual misconduct of children by various law enforcement agencies."
The two-page letter, which was signed by William Hodgman, head deputy of the office's sex crimes division, noted that Nuss held a public hearing on April 1 involving the key issues in the case.
"As a result, no grand jury proceedings were compromised and the integrity of the grand jury proceedings" remains intact, he wrote.
Hodgman said Nuss' upcoming decision "concerns general applicability of the law," and its specific application to individual privilege claims will be resolved later.
Donald F. Woods Jr., attorney for the archdiocese, criticized as "inappropriate" the release of the Hodgman letter to the media.
The archdiocese is paying Nuss $350 an hour as part of an agreement among the parties that was disclosed last month. To date, he has been paid at least $12,500.
Court spokesman Allan Parachini declined to comment. "Due to the tenets of grand jury secrecy, there is nothing more we can say about this matter at this time," he said.
Attorney Kelli Sager, who represents The Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Daily Journal, said, "We strongly support the district attorney's position that these proceedings should be open to the public."
If Nuss decides to hold a hearing on the request, Sager said, she will seek to argue in favor of media access.
By Teresa Watanabe
Salvadoran immigrant Arturo Lopez grew up too poor to acquire the university education typically required for professional lay ministers in the Roman Catholic Church.
But to his Dolores Mission Church community in Boyle Heights, his long years of walking with the people through shootings and deaths, religious festivities and peace marches offered rich evidence of his leadership credentials.
[Photo Captions - Ceremony: Arturo Lopez is commissioned as a pastoral assistant at Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights. Members of the congregation brought Lopez offerings symbolic of the community. Photo by Annie Wells, Los Angeles Times. New Mission: At Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights, Father Michael Kennedy, left, and Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala name Arturo Lopez pastoral assistant. Photo by Annie Wells, Los Angeles Times.]
So when parish members found out earlier this year that Dolores Mission would lose another priest, thinning its clerical ranks to one, they turned to Lopez. On Sunday, they formally commissioned him to help lead the community as a pastoral assistant and hope he will serve as a model to nurture lay leaders for the fast-growing immigrant church.
In the ceremony's symbolic high point, community representative Claudia Martinon passed a crucifix to Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala, who passed it to Lopez. Then the bishop read a proclamation commissioning Lopez to serve in his new role, as the packed congregation erupted in wild applause.
"This ceremony affirms lay leadership and the skills we have," exulted Arturo Laris, 23, a church volunteer and seventh-grade teacher at the parish school. "It's like giving power back to the people."
For his part, the soft-spoken Lopez, 39, pronounced himself both humbled and excited by the challenge as he thanked the congregation alongside his wife and three daughters.
In his new role, Lopez will not conduct sacramental rituals such as Mass, which is reserved for priests. But Father Michael Kennedy, Dolores Mission's Jesuit pastor, said Sunday's ceremony invested Lopez with the authority to take full charge of parish business in his absence, guide the various church ministries and carry out the Jesuit vision of social justice.
"There is a lot of leadership in the immigrant communities, but because of language or lack of formal education, certain opportunities haven't been available to them," said Zavala, who presided over the liturgy with the ceremonial staff and miter of a bishop. "We need to find ways of forming them to be viable leaders and ministers."
In Zavala's San Gabriel Pastoral Region of 66 parishes, he said, more than two dozen are predominantly immigrant congregations. Although lay leaders from those parishes may be quietly emerging, he said, Sunday's ceremony marked the first time he has presided over a liturgy to formally commission an immigrant leader.
The Los Angeles Archdiocese operates a training program for professional lay ministers known as pastoral associates that requires, among other things, a master's degree in pastoral theology or a related field. Such graduate education is also required for deacons, who are ordained ministers allowed to assume some sacramental roles, such as baptisms.
But Kennedy and others are advocating an alternative training track based on an apprenticeship, for people who lack such formal degrees.
Lopez, for instance, holds a high school graduation equivalency degree for studies completed in El Salvador. But he has spent 16 years apprenticing with Kennedy and other Jesuits, largely working with Central American refugees and homeless people at three parishes in Los Angeles.
Lopez's commission comes at a time when the Roman Catholic Church is reemphasizing the need to empower lay leadership. The call for lay leadership has intensified in recent years, as clergy sex scandals have cast a spotlight on the shortcomings of the church's clerical hierarchies.
On Saturday, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony signed the concluding report of a multiyear process known as a synod to reexamine pastoral priorities in the Los Angeles church. Nurturing lay leadership was a major theme. The Society of Jesus, the world's largest religious order also known as Jesuits, also emphasized lay leadership in its convocation last month, bringing lay and ordained together to debate future priorities.
"This is the way the spirit is moving," Kennedy said. "We keep on talking about it, but it's time to do it."
But Lopez's commission is also grounded in ancient church traditions. According to Father John Coleman, a sociologist at Loyola Marymount University, bishops and other church leaders were chosen from the people and trained under apprenticeships for 1,500 years. In the mid-16th century, the Council of Trent decided to set up seminaries to give future priests more systematic academic and moral training, he said.
"Some of the apprentices were illiterate, and others were corrupt," Coleman said, explaining the factors driving the establishment of the seminary system. "But one disadvantage is that you get people who, after they are trained, parachute into a community they don't know anything about."
One of Lopez's greatest strengths, his community backers say, is his intimate knowledge of their needs obtained through hours of devotion to them.
Parish staff member Rita Chairez, for instance, remembered the special care and attention Lopez gave her niece and nephew after the death of their mother. Medina Evertina, a computer specialist at the parish school, thinks of Lopez's ubiquitous presence: singing and strumming his guitar at peace marches, feeding the homeless men the church houses at night, always one of the first to arrive and last to leave at parish functions.
Lopez, a short, compact man with dark brown eyes and a neat goatee, said he was raised in the capital city of San Salvador, so poor that he would go for months on a diet of tortillas alone. Although his family was not devoutly religious, he said, he has felt a tug toward ministry ever since he joined a parish choir at age 10.
At age 16, he joined the youth ministry and would walk eight hours to bring the gospel and music to people in rural villages.
But Lopez said his religious activities soon caught the eye of government officials, who arrested him several times on suspicion that they were a front for anti-government organizing, a charge he denies. Eventually, he fled for Los Angeles in 1983.
Despite the community's call for his leadership, Lopez appears determinedly humble. At a meeting last week to plan Sunday's ceremony, Kennedy and several staff members urged him to bless the congregation after his formal commission, an act usually associated with priests. Others joked that they would give him the miter and staff of a bishop.
But Lopez shrunk back, and emphatically shook his head no.
"You thought this would be easy, huh?" Kennedy joked.
"That's why I agreed to do it," Lopez replied.
By Richard Winton
A retired Roman Catholic priest reassigned by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after the priest was accused of molesting boys in the 1980s was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of sexually abusing a child in his chaplain's office at the hospital from 1990 to 1995.
[Photo Caption - In Custody: Michael Wempe was transferred to Cedars-Sinai in 1980s after he was accused of molesting boys. Photo by Genaro Molina, Los Angeles Times.]
The Rev. Michael Wempe was one of 10 priests whose charges of sexual abuse were dismissed this summer after a U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidated the prosecution of decades-old molestation cases. The 63-year-old cleric had been charged in June with molesting five boys between 1977 and 1986 in Westlake Village, Palmdale and Ventura. He was released from jail this summer in the wake of the court ruling.
The new allegations, prosecutors said, cover a time period not affected by the high court decision.
The latest reported victim, now 24-years old, came forward only after hearing the other charges against Wempe had been dropped, authorities said. Wempe, who was arrested while eating breakfast at his Seal Beach retirement home, is being held in lieu of $2-million bail.
Mary Grant, spokeswoman for the California chapter of Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, said the latest allegations show the consequences of failing to fire and report abusive priests. "This cardinal transferred a priest who molested a new victim," she said.
After learning of the sex abuse allegations, Mahony ordered Wempe to complete psychiatric treatment and then transferred Wempe to Cedars-Sinai in 1988. Mahony later acknowledged he should not have reassigned Wempe without telling hospital officials about the accusations. Instead, Mahony told The Times last year, he should have reported Wempe to police and forced him to immediately resign.
"There had been absolutely no allegations against Wempe following his therapy and during his longtime placement at Cedars-Sinai," said Tod Tamberg, the archdiocese spokesman. "We thought he was one of our success stories. If this allegation proves true, it will be a bitter disappointment."
Donald Steier, one of Wempe's attorneys, also expressed surprise.
"I am shocked. I cannot help but be suspicious of the timing of these allegations after the Supreme Court decision," he said, maintaining his client's innocence.
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. Dan Scott of the Family Crimes Bureau, said the alleged victim was 11 when the abuse began in 1990. Wempe was a family friend, the victim told authorities, who allegedly molested him in a car and the chaplain's office, Scott said. The man was not a patient at the hospital at the time.
The alleged victim, who was not identified by authorities, came forward after the Supreme Court ruling, which has affected as many as 800 cases statewide and more than 200 in Los Angeles County. The high court decision voided a state law that gave prosecutors one year to file charges after they were notified of alleged sex crimes, regardless of when the crimes occurred. Prosecutors say that under the ruling they can file charges only for alleged abuse that happened after 1988.
Wempe's accuser told sheriff's investigators that he "was too ashamed to come forward earlier because he believed that Wempe would be convicted and sentenced on the testimony of the other victims," Scott said.
Cedars-Sinai officials said they first learned of abuse allegations against Wempe after he left the hospital last year.
"Based upon a review of our security records, we have confirmed there were no complaints or claims of misconduct regarding Father Wempe during the time he was assigned by L.A. Archdiocese to the hospital," said Grace Cheng, vice president of public relations.
Mahony forced Wempe to retire last year from the Cedars chaplaincy and from the active clergy, along with six other accused priests, as he retroactively applied a zero-tolerance policy for sex abusers in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.
Mahony told The Times he had ordered Wempe to a New Mexico treatment facility after the allegations in the 1980s. After treatment, Mahony said, experts told him that Wempe could be trusted to work in a place without access to children, such as a jail or hospital. Mahony said he was unaware that Cedars had a pediatric unit. Mahony said he did not report the abuse allegations to police until last year. He said he thought a therapist who treated Wempe in the 1980s had reported it earlier.
Other alleged victims of Wempe said Wednesday that the arrest showed how the L.A. Archdiocese acted like the Boston Archdiocese under former Cardinal Bernard Law -- transferring pedophiles who continued to abuse children.
"Mahony and Bernard Law were reading from the same operating manual," said Lee Bashforth, 33, an alleged victim of Wempe during the 1970s. "They sacrificed young people to these sexual predators."
Bashforth and his brother were ages 8 and 12, respectively, when, he alleged, Wempe began abusing them at the Westlake Village parish of St. Jude where they served as altar boys. Bashforth was among the five alleged victims Wempe was accused of molesting in June.
"I am just so sorry this had to happen, you know, that these kinds of things happened," Wempe said after he was released the following month. "I'm happy that it's been dismissed."
Wempe's church personnel files were among those demanded by the Los Angeles County Grand Jury. The archdiocese has fought the release of documents reflecting communications between top church officials and priests, claiming it would violate their civil rights.
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said the Wempe case "underscores the importance of ongoing litigation with the Los Angeles Archdiocese relative to records sought as criminal evidence in allegations of priests abusing children."
By Richard Winton
The Rev. Michael Wempe was charged Thursday with three counts of lewd conduct with a minor and a count of sexual assault and was ordered held on $800,000 bail.
[Photo Caption - Consultation: Michael Wempe, left, confers with defense attorney Donald Steier. Wempe's previous molestation charges, dating to the 1980s, were invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court. Photo by Gary Friedman, Los Angeles Times.]
Showing little emotion, Wempe, dressed in a brown jail shirt and pants, stood in the glass cage of a downtown Los Angeles criminal courtroom and told Superior Court Commissioner Jeffrey M. Harkavy that he wanted to delay his arraignment until Tuesday.
The retired Roman Catholic priest had been reassigned by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he allegedly molested a youth between 1990 and 1995.
Wempe, 63, had been transferred after Mahony heard allegations that he had molested boys at several parishes of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Los Angeles in the 1980s.
Wempe was one of 10 priests in Los Angeles County whose molestation charges were dismissed after a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June invalidated a law that allowed the prosecution of older abuse cases.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Todd Hicks charged that the victim, who is 24, was molested on four occasions between 1990 and 1995, beginning at the age of 11. The assaults allegedly occurred in Wempe's car and his office at the hospital.
Wempe was a family acquaintance of the victim, police said.
"We expect to prove these charges at a preliminary hearing," Hicks said. Donald Steier, Wempe's attorney, said his client will plead not guilty.
"He vigorously denies these allegations," Steier said.
At a news conference after the hearing Thursday, members of a support group for victims, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said the charges demonstrate Mahony's failure to deal with abusive priests until the recent public scandal.
After learning in the 1980s of sex abuse allegations against the priest, Mahony ordered Wempe to undergo psychiatric treatment and transferred him to the chaplaincy of Cedars-Sinai in 1988.
Mahony acknowledged to The Times last year that he should have not reassigned Wempe without telling hospital officials about the accusations.
Last spring, Mahony forced Wempe to retire from the Cedars chaplaincy and from active Catholic clergy when the prelate retroactively applied a zero-tolerance policy for abusers in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.
A spokesman for the archdiocese said Wednesday that no new allegations against the priest had been received by the church, which thought Wempe had been rehabilitated.
By Jean Guccione
A state appeals court on Thursday temporarily halted a secret hearing with prosecutors and lawyers for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles in their continuing dispute over access to the files of priests accused of molesting children.
The 2nd District Court of Appeal issued the temporary stay at the request of the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Daily Journal. The order states that the court wants more time for review.
The newspapers are seeking access to closed court proceedings, including the one that had been scheduled for today, and to sealed documents involving court rulings on the archdiocese's privilege claims.
Retired Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Thomas F. Nuss was appointed by the court to rule on the archdiocese's claims. He is being paid $350 an hour by the archdiocese under the terms of his appointment.
Today's scheduled hearing involved a request by prosecutors to make public Nuss' ruling on whether the archdiocese must turn over nearly 2,000 pages of papers subpoenaed for review by the grand jury.
Nuss last week issued an order sealing all documents in the case.
Prosecutors say the personnel files are essential to their ongoing investigation of sexual abuse by priests.
But lawyers for the archdiocese argue that the documents are protected by the 1st Amendment right of religious freedom and numerous privileges, including those involving communications between an attorney and client and penitent and confessor.
The court of appeal did not indicate when it would issue a ruling.
By Jean Guccione
In a last-minute bid to keep courthouses open, state lawmakers, with the blessing of lawyers and court officials, closed a $250-million gap in the budget for the court system with $150 million worth of new and increased fees on civil lawsuits.
[Photo Caption - Full House: Plaintiffs' lawyers line up at the Los Angeles County Superior Court clerk's office where civil suits are filed. Photo by Al Seib, Los Angeles Times.]
Some lawyers believe the fees, which took effect Aug. 17, could be devastating for low-income litigants, forcing them to settle disputes outside the public court system.
The most controversial is the new $500 fee for complex cases.
When it passed, plaintiffs' lawyers and court staff members believed it would be assessed on a per case basis. Instead, the law requires that each litigant in a case pay the fee, even those with thousands of plaintiffs.
Beverly Hills attorney Raymond P. Boucher, for example, will have to pay $150,000 to file complaints against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles on behalf of more than 200 alleged victims of childhood sexual abuse by priests.
The law has created such a stir that William C. Vickrey, administrative director of the state courts, directed local court officials to collect just one fee per case until lawmakers in Sacramento could review the effects of their action.
"The intent of the Senate Budget Committee, I think, was to have this apply just like a filing fee" to all plaintiffs as a group, Vickrey said.
The higher fees are expected to replace the $150 million in state general funds removed from the court's $2.5-billion budget.
The judicial branch also was forced to squeeze $100 million from its operational costs this fiscal year and may suffer more cuts if fee collections are lower than expected.
One of the biggest changes in the law creates a new sliding scale for probate fees that begins at $185 for estates worth less than $250,000 and exceeds $3,500 for those valued as high as $3.5 million. The old fee was $185 per case.
Lawmakers added a $100 fee for each time a trial is delayed by the parties. And they hiked the cost of filing limited-jurisdiction cases of $10,000 to $25,000.
Besides the filing fees, civil litigants also will be hit with a $20 courthouse security fee, the 10% surcharge enacted last year and higher court reporter costs.
The security fee applies to all civil filings except small claims and all criminal convictions, but not parking violations.
Criminal fines were raised 20% last year.
Increasing the court's reliance on fees reignites a long-standing debate over government funding of the judicial branch.
Civil filing fees are "appropriate and should reflect part of the cost of administering the judicial system," Vickrey said.
"But they should not be looked to as the sole means of funding the court system. It is not the responsibility of the civil justice system to support the criminal justice system."
But the choices were slim this year, Vickrey said. Court officials had to either close courtrooms or raise civil fees.
"It illustrates how fragile and how vulnerable courts are in a time of severe financial crisis," he said.
Vickrey plans to gather a group of bar leaders and other interested parties in the coming weeks to explore long-term options for financing the courts.
Meanwhile, the added costs alone could make it virtually impossible for some litigants to access the public court system.
"There is no question that, unfortunately, there will be a significant number of poor people who won't have access to the courts," said Boucher, a vice president of Consumer Attorneys of California.
Many plaintiffs' lawyers -- who pay all the litigation costs upfront for their clients in return for 40% of any award plus reimbursement of their costs -- will have to redo their risk-benefits analyses before taking on clients in more costly complex cases.
"The smaller legitimate cases are going to go by the wayside," Boucher predicted.
Because the fees were part of a last-minute budget deal, bar leaders had little time to weigh in before they were approved. Many affected groups, such as probate lawyers and those representing the poor, have not yet determined the impact on their clients.
Kenneth W. Babcock, who runs the Santa Ana-based Public Law Center, is most concerned about the effect of the $100 continuance fee on people who represent themselves and delay trial to try to work out an amicable resolution in family law disputes.
"For low-income litigants ... it can be significant, particularly if there are multiple continuances," he said.
Members of the State Bar's trusts and estates section have not yet taken a position on the new probate fee structure.
But its chairman, Marshal A. Oldman, was skeptical. "To me, it looks like a tax on probate," he said.
"I don't know if it's fair or unfair," Oldman said. "I think it's not necessarily based on the amount of work" the court must do on a particular estate.
"Why not just have a flat fee that applies to all estates?" he asked.
In the meantime, trial lawyers and court officials are trying to determine how to make up the $18 million that would be lost if the complex case fees are assessed per side, and not per litigant.
One option is to add another surcharge on all civil filings, not just the complex ones, for at least a year while another funding source is sought, said Bruce M. Brusavich, president of Consumer Attorneys of California.
New court costs
Superior Court fee hikes [former followed by new fee]:
Complex case: $0 -- $500*
By Teresa Watanabe
Judy Molosky, a longtime sister of the St. Joseph of Carondelet order, was hired last year as a lay minister for St. Brendan Church in Hancock Park. The nun helped keep the community together when the pastor, a charismatic man who had tripled the congregation's size, was dismissed after discovery of his affairs with adult women.
[Photo Caption - Contention: Sister Judy Molosky says her dismissal from parish post without discussion was an abuse of power. Photo by Kevin P. Casey, Los Angeles Times. Seeking to Serve: Sister Judy Molosky says she fought her dismissal at St. Brendan's in Hancock Park to "challenge an antiquated church system." Photo by Kevin P. Casey, Los Angeles Times.]
But in July, three weeks after arriving as St. Brendan's new pastor, Father John W. Love told Molosky that he would not renew her contract. He says that the church's $1.2-million deficit required staff reductions and that he does not oppose lay ministers; she says his failure to discuss or negotiate alternatives was an abuse of power.
Since then, what began as a parish labor dispute has mushroomed into what Molosky's supporters see as a watershed of whether the Roman Catholic Church would make room in its centuries-old traditions of hierarchical clerical rule for a new era of collaboration with laity, including nuns.
The situation is timely. Cardinal Roger M. Mahony on Sunday is scheduled to officially certify the Los Angeles Archdiocese's first crop of 18 professional lay ministers -- Molosky included. They are becoming increasingly vital as the priest shortage worsens.
"Lay people used to be expected to pray, pay and obey, but now we have theologically well-educated people who can exercise leadership roles in the church," said Michael Horan, a Loyola Marymount University professor who heads an archdiocesan advisory committee on professional lay ministers, known as pastoral associates. "The problem is, there are no procedures" to protect them in their jobs.
Molosky's dismissal provoked a swift reaction. Nearly 200 members of her order's West Coast province sent a letter of protest to Mahony for what they called clerical "misuse of authority" for ending Molosky's contract with no negotiation. At St. Brendan -- a diverse congregation of Filipinos, Koreans, Latinos and whites from wealthy and working-class families -- some parishioners withdrew their contributions in protest.
"It was symbolic of women's position in the church and our own inability to have any real power or voice," said one protester, Los Angeles attorney Graciela Martinez.
Last week, in a move that both stunned and elated Molosky's supporters, Mahony announced that Love would leave St. Brendan to finish his doctoral degree and would not be reassigned to the parish. The cardinal has appointed as new pastor Msgr. Terrance Fleming, who is scheduled to arrive from a sabbatical in January.
The archdiocese won't comment on the case, citing confidentiality of personnel matters.
For her part, Molosky said she was gratified by the support. But she said she would not be returning to St. Brendan's staff and now questions whether she will ever want to work as a pastoral associate again. Still, she said it was a fight worth waging.
"We did this because we believe the people who come after us in lay ministry deserve better," said Molosky, a Los Angeles native who, over three decades, has set up homeless shelters, run a job bank for immigrants, and served on her order's leadership council. "We wanted to challenge an antiquated church system that uses authoritarian, top-down decision making."
Love, however, said he has been misunderstood. The Molosky dismissal, he said, was part of a program of broader staff cuts to close a $1.2-million debt incurred by acquiring property to expand the parish school. He declined to comment on whether he had discussed those financial problems adequately with Molosky, but he said he had consulted with St. Brendan's finance council.
"This whole thing can make it appear that I'm a dinosaur from the past that doesn't accept lay ministers," Love said. "I am on record of being in favor of pastoral associates. I think it's unfortunate that the whole situation has been blown out of proportion."
Among some of Love's supporters, Mahony's action fanned tensions in the church between the forces of tradition and those of change. Because most of the pastoral associates are women, some conservative priests fear that installing them as lay ministers to run parishes or serve in top leadership positions was "part of an agenda to push for married clergy and women priests," as one cleric put it. They also fear that some lay ministers might infringe on priestly duties, such as preaching.
"Some priests feel we're going into dangerous territory here," said the cleric, who asked for anonymity for fear of retribution. "If our legitimate rights are being trampled on to push an agenda, there are going to be problems."
Others, however, praise Mahony's action as a courageous step forward to empower the laity and treat them justly.
"The cardinal sent a very loud and clear message to other priests in the diocese that this is not acceptable," Loyola's Horan said, referring to Love's action toward Molosky.
Horan said the furor was part of the "growing pains" of the relatively new practice of using lay professional ministers in Los Angeles. Although such ministers are common in the Midwest, which has long faced severe priest shortages, Los Angeles began its process to develop pastoral associates only in 1999, under Sister Mary Genino.
Unlike specialized lay ministers -- such as directors of religious education who have been part of parish staff for decades -- pastoral associates are trained as generalists capable of everything from budgets to spiritual counseling.
In the rural Midwest, for instance, many pastoral associates run parishes, with priests visiting on Sundays to celebrate Mass and perform sacraments. Among other things, pastoral associates are required to obtain a master's degree in theology or a related field.
Mahony has strongly embraced the idea of collaborative leadership between clerics and the laity. But "we are in fact not there yet," Mahony acknowledged in his Aug. 14 response to the letter from Molosky and other nuns. He pledged to craft new policies to protect lay ministers, and is forming a committee to do so.
Horan and Genino say such policies should include processes to place lay ministers, handle grievances, and gauge whether priests who may be assigned to a new parish can work with staff already in place. In addition, Horan said lay ministers should be appointed by the archbishop to give them "credibility" with the pastor.
Molosky, meanwhile, still misses ministering to St. Brendan's diverse congregation, despite several pending job offers. "The hardest thing every day," she said, "is grieving over the loss of the most meaningful ministry I've had in 35 years."
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