Second Grand Jury Scrutinizes Phoenix Diocese
Legal Maneuvering Delays Priest Sex Abuse Inquiry
By Joseph A. Reaves and Kelly Ettenborough
The Arizona Republic
January 31, 2003
An eight-month criminal investigation of sexual misconduct in the Phoenix Catholic Diocese has been delayed by legal maneuvering and an unexpected shortage of grand jurors, according to newly released court records obtained by The Arizona Republic.
The records reveal for the first time that two grand juries have been impaneled to investigate the Phoenix Diocese, one of 10 Catholic dioceses and archdioceses facing criminal scrutiny.
A first grand jury, seated last July, was disbanded Nov. 6 because several jurors dropped out. A second panel was seated immediately but had to start its investigation anew.
The newly released records reveal that the term of the current grand jury expires Feb. 28, adding a sense of urgency to what has become a protracted legal standoff between the church and Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley.
Romley has repeatedly accused the diocese of failing to fully cooperate. Two priests have been indicted since the investigation began. One was released because the statute of limitations expired. The second is cooperating with investigators.
In motions filed earlier this month with the Arizona Court of Appeals, prosecutors accuse church attorneys of engaging in "novel, obstructionist and frivolous" legal maneuvers designed to "seriously impede the grand jury's ability" to pursue an investigation.
Attorneys for the diocese argue that any delays in the grand jury process are a result of attempts to ensure secrecy of documents they say should be protected.
"All we have done is assert the attorney-client privilege on behalf of our client to protect communications between the diocese and its lawyers," said James J. Belanger, lead attorney for the diocese.
A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear arguments at 9:30 a.m. today on the privilege issue, which involves several thousand documents the church wants kept from the grand jury. Lawyers for Romley and the diocese will have 20 minutes each to present their cases.
Details about the privilege dispute and the disbanded grand jury became public when the appeals court ruled in favor of a motion by The Arizona Republic to unseal court documents the church sought to keep secret.
"The appellate court enhanced the integrity of these proceedings by unsealing documents the diocese would have kept under wraps," said David Bodney, who represented The Republic in the petition.
Grand jury proceedings are secret under Arizona law except in cases where the release of information promotes the furtherance of justice. Most court records, on the other hand, are public. That creates a complicated legal issue when court records deal directly or indirectly with issues that arise from the grand jury process.
The court records already unsealed show the diocese has turned over nearly 100,000 documents in response to a pair of subpoenas served May 31 and June 27. But those court records also show the diocese is fighting to keep at least another 3,500 documents from the grand jury.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Eddward Ballinger examined those 3,500 documents in December and ruled on New Year's Eve that the vast majority, or 2,286, should be handed over to the grand jury.
Church attorneys have asked the Court of Appeals to overturn Ballinger's ruling on the grounds he interpreted Arizona's corporate client-privilege laws too narrowly.
The newly released court documents show that among the records the diocese claims should be privileged are such things as a memo from an unknown author about a radio show, a telephone message from an unknown person to someone identified only as Father Mike and an undated draft of a letter from Bishop O'Brien to "My dearly beloved."
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