DA Claims 'Legal Victory' in Battle over Priest Documents
Ruling Strikes down Archdiocese's Claim of Confidentiality

NBC 4 [Los Angeles CA]
Downloaded September 9, 2004

LOS ANGELES -- A judge ruled Wednesday that the nation's largest Roman Catholic archdiocese cannot withhold potential evidence or proof of clergy sex abuse by claiming that communications between priests and bishops are confidential.

The ruling in a long-running legal battle was made by Thomas F. Nuss, a retired state judge appointed to review thousands of pages of church personnel documents subpoenaed by a Los Angeles County grand jury investigating possible sexual abuse by priests.

In weighing the balance between private personnel files and potential evidence of abuse, Nuss wrote in his 32-page ruling that the grand jury's subpoenas don't "have as a principal or primary effect the inhibition of religion."

The district attorney subpoenaed about 2,000 pages of personnel files and other confidential church records since 2002. But most of those subpoenas were dismissed in July because they dealt with allegations that fell beyond the statute of limitations.

Prosecutors said Nuss' ruling could open the way for access to hundreds of pages of confidential documents involving two retired priests. But the archdiocese said the ruling was narrower, applying only to 80 pages that the church had argued were protected by the First Amendment.

"The Archdiocese believes that the ability to have confidential communications between a priest and his bishop is central to the bishop's ability to manage and to assist the priests in their spiritual lives," the archdiocese said in a statement.

But the court ruled "that the efforts of the bishop to inquire into matters of sexual misconduct were no different from a typical employer investigating the misconduct of an employee," the statement read.

Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley called the ruling "a major legal victory, with national implications, for victims of church sex abuse and a rejection of a so-called First Amendment 'confidentiality privilege' which the court found does not exist."

Cooley said prosecutors have contended that "assertion of the pastoral privilege must give way to a more compelling interest. That interest is the prosecution of anyone, regardless of their status, who would molest children."

"I once again urge Cardinal Mahony, as I first did in 2002, to give priority to the protection of children from child molestation by providing the fullest possible disclosure of evidence of sexual abuse by clergy," Cooley said in a news release.

The documents are considered crucial because they could contain sexual abuse allegations made against priests that church officials failed to report to authorities.

In Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law resigned in December under intense public pressure after personnel records, made public by court order, revealed that he and other church administrators protected pedophile priests.

The documents in question on Los Angeles took on even greater significance after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a California law in June that had lifted the statute of limitations in old molestation cases.

It was not immediately clear whether the archdiocese would appeal. It was also uncertain whether the ruling by Nuss meant the grand jury would soon receive the documents.

"We were disappointed in Judge Nuss's creation of an exception to what would otherwise be a privilege under the religion clauses to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution," archdiocese lawyer Don Woods said in a prepared statement.

"We believe that Judge Nuss' ruling is novel, is inconsistent," Woods said, "and should be considered by a higher court."

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