4 Top Mahony Aides Testify Before Grand Jury
By Richard Winton and Tracy Wilson
Four top aides to Cardinal Roger M. Mahony have testified before a Ventura County grand jury investigating sexual abuse by priests, according to Los Angeles Archdiocese officials who also said Thursday that they will cite freedom of religion in opposing the disclosure of some files.
The church will turn over documents to a judge today but will argue that some of the material should not be given to prosecutors, asserting that communications between a bishop and a priest are privileged and constitutionally protected under the 1st Amendment, according to a lawyer for the archdiocese.
It is the latest and potentially the most important dispute in the yearlong investigation of the Catholic church by prosecutors.
The four clerics who testified are Santa Barbara Bishop Thomas J. Curry, Msgr. Richard A. Loomis, Msgr. Timothy J. Dyer and Msgr. Craig A. Cox.
Each has served as the vicar of the clergy at some period during Mahony's 17 years as head of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, which oversees 1,200 Roman Catholic priests serving in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
They are the first top church officials to be subpoenaed by a grand jury in Southern California, increasing the pressure in the year since Mahony removed seven priests because of child molestation allegations.
On the document dispute, church attorney J. Michael Hennigan said there is "a limitation on what a state can do when it comes to private church files. At the same time, it is our desire to help law enforcement. They don't get to rummage freely through diocesan files. We don't understand why they need to."
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said he will continue to insist that the church surrender all the files.
"My position is that no one and no institution -- not even men of God or the Archdiocese of Los Angeles -- is above the law," he said.
"We have and will continue to utilize the tools we have at our disposal -- criminal investigations, subpoenas and the grand jury -- in an effort to shed light upon this sad and disheartening scandal."
Hennigan said the four clerics have testified before grand jurors since the beginning of the year and have "answered their questions."
Ventura County Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Maeve Fox declined to comment.
But sources said Ventura County prosecutors are investigating several priests accused of sexual abuse, as well as the wider issue of what church officials knew about the allegations. At least three former priests suspected of molesting at least 15 children beginning in the 1970s are under investigation.
Hennigan said he will also oppose disclosure of other church documents on 17 priests suspected of abuse, arguing that they are subject to attorney-client privilege and to the patient-therapist privilege.
"We've always said we'd turn over documents that aren't privileged," Hennigan said.
The church is confident there is no evidence of wrongdoing in the files, Hennigan said, but must protect itself.
He said the archdiocese has not changed its position and has always said it would not support the release of privileged documents.
Last summer, Mahony told The Times that the church wants "every single thing out, open and dealt with, period."
Thomas Nuff, a retired Los Angeles Superior Court judge, will decide the documents issue. The first open hearing on the matter has been set for April 1. In Ventura County, the church has raised similar objections to similar demands for documents.
In a letter to Mahony last year, Cooley's counterpart, then-Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury, called the archdiocese "an obstacle" to an ongoing criminal investigation.
"We believe you have evidence of criminal sexual abuse that you are refusing to provide to law enforcement," Bradbury wrote. "It is time that the safety of children be put ahead of the fear of scandal."
Victims rights group for those who allege they were molested by priests said the archdiocese's latest move is an attempt to cover up what Mahony knew about the abuse.
"Cardinal Mahony and other bishops have knowingly protected and harbored these molesters for years," said Mary Grant, spokeswoman for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
"It is clear Cardinal Mahony is not interested in disclosure and he is trying to cover up his handling of cases," she said.
Hennigan said he will object to disclosure of parts of the file of Michael Stephen Baker. Baker told Mahony in 1986 that he had molested boys.
Mahony has said he did not contact police about Baker but referred him for treatment.
Baker was then transferred to nine different parishes, had his ministry restricted, and was ultimately removed by Mahony when new allegations of sexual misconduct were made.
Baker is one of six former or retired priests so far charged in Los Angeles County with child molestation.
After prosecutors demanded files last year, Donald Steier, an attorney for several accused priests, fought the request on procedural grounds.
The church delivered many documents to Los Angeles County Superior Court, pending resolution of the legal fight, but prosecutors have yet to see any of them.
Some law enforcement officials say the protracted fight over personnel files is designed to delay any damaging disclosures ahead of a U.S. Supreme Court hearing on a key related case.
The Supreme Court in April is scheduled to hear oral arguments in Stogner vs. California, a challenge to a 1994 California law that has become a national model for overcoming legal time limits in decades-old child molestation cases.
Almost all prosecutions of priests hinge on that statute because most date back more than a decade.
William Hodgman, deputy district attorney in charge of the Los Angeles investigations, said that if the statute is struck down, dozens of prosecutions would end.
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