Games Bishops Play: Why DA Bill Hill Should Be Wary

The Dallas Morning News [Dallas TX]
February 15, 2005

The Diocese of Dallas has promised full cooperation with District Attorney Bill Hill as he moves forward with his investigation into the way it has handled sex-abuse allegations against priests.

No less should be expected, of course, as Mr. Hill combs through diocesan personnel files. But if this is to be a real investigation, then the district attorney must be realistic about the games bishops and their lawyers can play.

According to attorneys who have litigated church sex-abuse cases, some bishops seeking to hide incriminating documents have removed them from a priest's personnel file and had them stored at the diocesan lawyer's office. In cases like this, investigators who look solely at the personnel files will not find the smoking guns, which might have been holstered across town.

In a 2004 deposition in a sex-abuse civil suit, the Rev. George Crespin, former chancellor for the Diocese of Oakland, Calif., was asked why reports on seven or eight priests alleged to have engaged in sex with children did not go into the priests' personnel files. Replied Father Crespin, "That was the instruction we had from the lawyers."

The "secret archive" is another place unscrupulous bishops can hide problematic evidence. Under Roman Catholic canon law, each bishop is required to maintain a "secret archive" where records of gravely serious matters are stored. Church law requires that archive to be purged every 10 years. In the notorious Dallas case of the Rev. Robert Peebles, the secret archive contained damning information not in his personnel file which is why savvy plaintiff's attorney Sylvia Demarest made sure her document request included information from that stash.

And there is the disturbing possibility that a bishop has removed relevant documents and sent them to the Vatican Embassy in Washington, where diplomatic immunity protects them from subpoena. This isn't paranoia; in 1990, Cleveland auxiliary Bishop James A. Quinn publicly advised canon lawyers that this would be a good way to keep prosecutors and plaintiff's attorneys from getting their hands on evidence.

We are not accusing the Dallas diocese of having done any of this. Still, the best way for Mr. Hill's team to make sure the diocese is playing it straight is to use his subpoena power and use it quickly to compel release to investigators of all documents related to its clergy, not just personnel files.


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