Priest Sex-abuse Plaintiffs Decry Delays in Getting Justice

By Tom Kisken
Ventura County Star [California]
March 16, 2003

It seems straightforward to those who allege they were molested by priests. They want the courts to hear each of their stories and bring each of them justice.

So some of them are frustrated by a hearing this week that could lead to dealing with pretrial aspects of hundreds of lawsuits collectively before one judge. They are irate about a battle over acquiring church records, which has gained the attention of state legislators, who offer a proposal that could be a life preserver for criminal prosecutions in danger of missing a life-or-death deadline.

"If there's nothing in those files, why not turn them over?" asked Lee Bashforth. He scoffs at Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles' claims that it is trying to cooperate with civil and criminal investigations but is also guarding a constitutionally protected privacy.

Bashforth and his brother, who both live in Orange County, allege that as children in the Conejo Valley during the 1970s they were molested by the Rev. Michael Wempe, who served as an associate pastor at several parishes in and around Ventura County. They're suing and also hoping for criminal indictments. They accuse archdiocesan officials of stonewalling their path to healing.

"It's justice that will allow us to go on with our lives," Bashforth said.

Ventura County Chief Deputy District Attorney Michael Frawley isn't as emotional but is just as pointed. He said his office is investigating cases that involve more than four priests and about 20 victims. Prosecutors wrote an open letter to L.A. archdiocese leader Cardinal Roger Mahony in October requesting documents and complaining about the refusal to provide evidence that could corroborate sex-abuse claims.

"We believe that often the priest admitted the conduct. That's huge evidence in proving someone's guilt," Frawley said.

He suggested church records might supply such admissions, as in the case of a former Orange County priest arrested Thursday, partly because of a letter the man wrote to Pope John Paul II. It was turned over to authorities by the Diocese of Orange.

"We're asking for just that kind of thing, and we haven't gotten any of it," Frawley said.

Los Angeles archdiocese officials said they have been much more cooperative than alleged victims and prosecutors from Ventura and Los Angeles counties are letting on, though they argue pastoral conversations between a bishop and a priest are privileged.

'We turned over every document'

In the Wempe case, all records requested for a criminal investigation have been turned over to the courts, said J. Michael Hennigan, a lawyer for the archdiocese. He noted that the Bashforths' lawsuit against Wempe -- dismissed last year because of a statute of limitations that has since been temporarily lifted -- had recently been re-filed.

He also challenged Frawley's characterizations, specifically pointing at records requested for recent grand jury proceedings in Ventura County.

"We turned over every document to a Superior Court judge and he made his rulings," he said, declining to offer specifics and citing confidentiality requirements.

Frawley, however, outlined the barriers posed by what he bluntly described as the stall tactics of not providing records.

Law enforcement officials have a year from when an alleged victim comes to them to file criminal charges. Frawley said the lack of cooperation from the church means the clock will expire, with the deadline for one investigation coming in April.

"Right now the archdiocese and the priests' lawyers are jeopardizing our ability to prosecute their cases," he said.

A California Assembly bill sponsored by the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office tries to address the same problem by extending the clock on investigations that involve subpoenas and search warrants.

"Let's not have an arbitrary one-year time limit interfere with that process of justice," said Assembywoman Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, who introduced the bill.

Frawley said the bill would allow local prosecutors to continue their investigations.

Los Angeles Archdiocese officials learned of the bill Wednesday, according to a spokesman, who added that comment would be premature.

Hennigan said he'd like to see the battles over records resolved by prosecutors working with the archdiocese and coming up with a system that works for both sides. He said church officials can deal better with requests for specific information from a particular file than blanket requests, though Ventura County authorities say they've been very specific without success.

The tug of war has fueled speculation that Mahony is protecting himself and other archdiocese leaders from a smoking gun. But Hennigan denied that.

"Certainly there's nothing I'm aware of that would incriminate any archdiocese official," Hennigan said.

He also suggested that in civil cases some victims don't want their cases resolved.

"I think that honestly there is a strong constituency that just wants this to be in the newspapers," he said. "My job is to get this out of the newspapers. I want this to be part of our past and not our present."

It will certainly be a part of the immediate future.

Hearing this week on lawsuits

On Friday, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge will preside over a hearing on coordinating clergy abuse lawsuits. That would mean pretrial processes, including battles over records, would be handled by one judge for either all of California or a region of the state, lawyers said. Some, but not all issues, would be dealt with collectively and not individually.

Some attorneys argue that coordination will fast-track the cases and minimize repetition. Others worry that it could slow down the process, especially if hundreds of cases across the state are coordinated.

Lawyers reassure clients that lawsuits that advance to trial will be dealt with individually and they will have a day in court. Still, some alleged victims worry their cases will be merged into, as Manuel Vega of Oxnard put it, "one big heap of molestation."

"I want the opportunity to be heard," said Vega, who alleges he was molested as a boy by the Rev. Fidencio Silva, then an associate pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Oxnard. "I want the opportunity to have the church answer my questions in regard to how could they have let these molestations take place."

Other key decisions are on the horizon. On March 31, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to begin hearing arguments about a 1994 law that allowed prosecutors to pursue molestations cases based on when the crime was reported and not when it happened. The law opened the door to abuses that happened decades ago, including many of the current allegations against California priests.

If the court overturns the law, the ramifications would be felt in Ventura County.

"It would deprive us of the ability to criminally prosecute a number of cases," Frawley said.

The prosecutor wouldn't identify the priests being investigated in Ventura County. Several priests with ties to the county have been mentioned in civil allegations. George Michael Miller, a retired priest living in Oxnard, is scheduled to be arraigned on charges of molestation Tuesday at Los Angeles Superior Court in San Fernando.

John Peter Lenihan, 57, was arrested Thursday in Ventura County on suspicion of child sexual abuse relating to when he was a priest in Orange County. He left the priesthood last year and reportedly worked as a manager of a packaging plant in Ventura County.

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