Court Hears Plea on Priests
Prosecutors and Newspapers Unite in Seeking Release of Archdiocese Documents in Grand Jury Probe of Molestations
By Jean Guccione
Los Angeles Times [Los Angeles CA]
Downloaded November 18, 2003
In an unusual matchup, Los Angeles County prosecutors joined two newspapers Monday in trying to persuade state appellate court judges to make public documents in the grand jury investigation of Roman Catholic priests accused of child molestation.
Kelli L. Sager, the attorney for the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Daily Journal, argued that the public has a right to know more about the legal fight being waged behind closed doors by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Church lawyers are trying to stop the release of potentially damaging personnel files on priests.
Sager argued that the court should not have issued a blanket order sealing all documents in the ongoing criminal investigation of pedophile priests.
It is uncertain how the justices in the 2nd District Court of Appeal will rule. But they indicated in arguments Monday that they will draft a rule for trial judges to follow on the secrecy required for grand jury-related proceedings.
Presiding Justice Joan Dempsey Klein defended Los Angeles County Superior Court judges who sealed the documents, saying that they had little guidance because state law does not address the point.
She urged lawyers to help the court draft a rule that will not result "in the unauthorized disclosure of matters occurring before the grand jury." The other justices on the panel are Walter Croskey and Patti S. Kitching.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Brent Ferreira said it is possible for the public to know more about the legal arguments being made by the archdiocese without divulging grand jury secrets.
Prosecutors, in fact, have not seen many of the documents being sought by the grand jury while retired Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Thomas F. Nuss reviews the church's privilege claims.
Attorney Donald F. Woods Jr., who represents the archdiocese, argued that any release of information "inherently will compromise grand jury secrecy."
He argued that the trial court should release the thousands of pages of personnel and other documents being sought by the grand jury only after indictments are issued.
If indictments are never issued, which Woods said is very likely, the documents should remain under seal for a variety of reasons, including protecting the privacy of the innocent investigation targets, he said.
Attorney Donald H. Steier, who represents priests whose records were subpoenaed by the grand jury, said the court does not have to create another rule because one already exists. "There is no right to public access to the grand jury. Period," he said.
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