Bid to Shield Priest Data Faulted
By Michael Rezendes
March 14, 2003
The chairman of the review board named by US Catholic bishops to monitor compliance with their child-abuse prevention plan says he is "stunned" that Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles has raised First Amendment and privacy objections to the release of church documents to law enforcement officials.
"I'm very concerned about what this suggests to other dioceses and the Catholic lay community at large," Frank Keating, the former governor of Oklahoma, said in an interview. "Transparency, the clear light of day, a fresh breeze, open windows - that's the policy of the board and the bishops. I'm just stunned that we would try to hide facts."
Keating was reacting to Mahony's decision to resist demands for church documents by district attorneys for Los Angeles and Ventura counties, citing the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion and what church lawyers call a "formation privilege" covering communications between a bishop and his priests.
But Keating said he was equally dismayed by similar decisions made by other bishops, including a decision by Bishop Richard G. Lennon, the administrator of the Boston Archdiocese, to cite the First Amendment in a legal motion to dismiss all pending clergy sex abuse suits against the Boston archdiocese. Keating vowed to take up the recent moves by the bishops at the next meeting of the national board, scheduled to take place in Santa Fe at the end of March.
"We're going to examine the facts associated with these issues and discuss their implications," Keating said. "It's just so sad that the front pages are still filled with stories of avoidance and denial and coverup."
Last June, American bishops meeting in Dallas adopted a charter that included a "commitment of transparency and openness" when dealing with the issue of clergy sexual abuse.
Some law enforcement officials say that Mahony's recent actions are out of step with that policy. William Hodgeman, head of the sex crimes division in the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, said in an interview that Mahony and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the nation's largest, are citing privacy considerations and the First Amendment in their response to 17 subpoenas for church documents. The subpoenas concern six priests who have been charged with child sexual abuse and up to a dozen others currently under investigation.
The stakes in the battle could be high, Hodgeman said, because officials are relying on a unique California law that allows them to prosecute sex crimes committed outside the limits of the statute of limitations, in some cases decades ago, if they have corroborative evidence and if charges are filed within a year of a victim's complaint to authorities.
"In some cases, we have credible victims alleging substantial misconduct, but do not yet have clear and convincing corroborative proof," Hodgeman said. "We believe that proof may be found in some instances in the archival documents of the archdiocese."
Tod Tamberg, spokesman for Mahony, said the archdiocese has asserted a First Amendment privilege because certain communications between bishops and priests must be considered beyond government scrutiny if freedom of religion is to be guaranteed.
"Priests need to have a place to speak in confidence about their spiritual life, their ongoing formation, and religious development," Tamberg said. "It's a confidential communication that lies at the core of a bishop's relationship with his priests. And once you start intruding upon that, those conversations undoubtedly would evaporate, making it virtually impossible for that important relationship to function."
The dispute over church records is scheduled to be heard in open court on April 1.
Officials of the Boston archdiocese, including Cardinal Bernard F. Law and Lennon, tried unsuccessfully to use the First Amendment as a basis for withholding church records from plaintiffs. More recently, the archdiocese has also cited the First Amendment in arguing that some 500 outstanding clergy sexual abuse claims should be dismissed. That motion to dismiss was rejected on Feb. 19, but the decision has been appealed.
But the Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, an advocate for clergy abuse victims who holds a doctorate in canon law, said he's unfamiliar with a "formation privilege" protecting communications between a bishop and his priests. "It has no foundation in canon law," Doyle said. "I've never heard of it."
As recently as last June, Mahony was praised by victims of clergy abuse and their advocates for releasing victims from confidentiality agreements signed as part of out-of-court financial settlements and for his candor in discussing clergy sexual abuse.
Michael Rezendes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story ran on page A17 of the Boston Globe on 3/14/2003.
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