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  Judge Rejects Subpoena of Priests' Files:
The Decision Further Narrows the Criminal Investigation into Clergy Misconduct

By Jean Guccione
LA Times [Los Angeles]
July 14, 2004

A judge has quashed 30 grand jury subpoenas seeking confidential personnel files of Roman Catholic priests suspected of child molestation.

The decision narrows the criminal investigation into clergy misconduct in Los Angeles County. That investigation already had been significantly narrowed last summer, when the U.S. Supreme Court halted the prosecution of older sex crime cases.

The high court ruled that California had violated the U.S. Constitution when it passed a law to revive prosecutions in long-ago cases.

In the new ruling, retired Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Thomas F. Nuss said the Los Angeles County Grand Jury could not seek church records of priests whose cases were now too old to be prosecuted.

That ruling is not expected to affect more than 500 civil cases in which people who say they were victimized by pedophile priests have sued the Los Angeles Archdiocese for allegedly failing to protect minors.

Nor did Nuss address the overall legal issue of whether Cardinal Roger M. Mahony may withhold files based on the claim that releasing the files would violate the Catholic church's constitutional right to the free exercise of religion. Lawyers for Mahony also argue that releasing the records would violate an array of legal privileges, including that between a priest and penitent.

Nuss is expected to rule on those issues in the next few weeks.

Mahony's attorney Donald Woods said the ruling was "not a victory or a loss" for his client. "It's a recognition of the fact that they are very limited in the number of victims within the last 15 years.... I think it shows the church has been and Cardinal Mahony has been effective in reducing the problem."

Attorney Donald Steier called the ruling "a big victory" for the individual priests he represents "because they won't have their files invaded and read by strangers."

He said he believed the grand jury was "overreaching" in its original document requests. "They wanted everything to start with," he said. "Now they are down to a lot less."

Nuss' decision to deny Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley's 2-year-old request for more than 2,000 pages of church documents was reflected in a transcript of a June 25 secret court hearing first made public Tuesday.

Less than two hours after the ruling, prosecutors already had refiled subpoenas for some of the same church records involving two priests. The new subpoenas allege the priests had molested minors since Jan. 1, 1988, the cutoff date for criminal prosecution under last year's high court ruling. The names of those priests have not been made public.

All but 700 pages of the originally subpoenaed church documents have been returned to the archdiocese, Woods said. The remaining pages involve the newer allegations.

Cooley, in a written statement, said he anticipates more subpoenas for priest personnel files in the future. He also acknowledged the "devastating effect" of the high court's decision last year limiting the prosecution of child molestation cases.

"The material sought in the new subpoenas will enable the district attorney's office to address all privilege issues and the constitutional concerns raised by the ongoing grand jury litigation," Cooley said.

"We believe the issuance of the new subpoenas will expedite resolution of those issues and assist law enforcement in the ongoing investigations and prosecutions of allegations of sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy."

Advocates for victims say they see a parallel between Mahony and Boston Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who resigned as archbishop in 2002 after the court-ordered release of 45,000 pages of church records. Those documents showed that Law and other top-ranking church officials had covered-up wrongdoing to protect pedophile priests.

But Woods said prosecutors in Los Angeles have "consistently denied that" they are investigating an alleged conspiracy by higher church officials. "They have said the Cardinal and the archdiocese are not never have been a target and subject of the investigation," Woods said.

Stockton attorney Laurence Drivon, who represents 450 people who say they were sexually abused by Catholic priests in California, said he wasn't surprised by Nuss' ruling in light of the earlier Supreme Court decision.

"This is a 'been there, done that' type thing," he said, referring to last summer's release of convicted sex offenders, including priests, from prisons and the widespread dismissal of child molestation charges that resulted from the high court's ruling.

Nuss' "ruling will have no effect on the civil cases," Drivon said.

The inability to criminally prosecute alleged pedophile priests has made the civil litigation "more relevant" and of "greater public interest," Drivon said, because "it will force change to protect children in the future."

 
 

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