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Archdiocese Under Fire Over Files Access

Mar 20, 2003 | National Catholic Reporter Lines in Los Angeles archdiocese’s criminal and civil clerical sex abuse cases are being more sharply drawn in a battle over access to church documents. The files in question reportedly would show what happened, or did not, among archdiocesan officials in cases involving some 130 Los Angeles priests accused of sexual abuse.

Faced with the possibility of such revelations, and in a reversal of an earlier stance, the archdiocese now claims that communication between a bishop and his priests is privileged information protected by law.

In reaction, the local media, police and plaintiffs’ lawyers have become more public in condemning the archdiocese’s intransigence regarding access to its paperwork.

At a March 7 Voice of the Faithful/Call to Action e-mail invitation-only gathering, Los Angeles Police Department detectives waded into the fray describing how they had been barred in criminal cases from access to the documents.

The archdiocese has already turned over files to the court. But, explained Detective James Brown of the Juvenile Division, the documents are under lock and key in the judge’s chambers in the criminal court. Church lawyers -- by arguing that the documents are privileged -- have prevented the police from actually reading what is in the files.

Brown said the greater worry is that when the documents are truly released, it will be document-by-document, a process, that, in criminal cases where a 12-month clock is already running, means the cases will become moot. So, simultaneously, the district attorney is seeking legislation to stop the clock during the delays created by the archdiocese’s strategy.

The archdiocese is aware that it has little to lose and everything to gain from delay on criminal cases. There is an expiration date after 12 months for criminal cases pursued under California 803G, which lifted a statute of limitation and permits criminal prosecution in older cases. Next month the U.S. Supreme Court will consider a challenge to 803G. (This is not to be confused with a California law that last year lifted the statute of limitations in civil cases and permits, during this 2003 calendar year, suits against institutions that employed known child molesters, regardless of the date of the abuse.)

A major blast against the archdiocese for withholding access to documents came in a March 5 Los Angeles Times editorial headlined, “Do What You Say, Cardinal.”

The editorial stated: “After preaching candor at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last fall, Mahony is now practicing secrecy at home.” It criticized Mahony for his evasiveness and a “stunning disregard for the shock and betrayal experienced by many Catholics since the scandal broke.”

Last July, faced with a third set of grand jury subpoenas, Mahony had told the Times that the church wanted, “Every single thing out, open and dealt with. Period.”

Not any more. His lawyers, in the second half of February, in both criminal and civil case hearings, have argued that communications between a bishop and a priest are protected by the First Amendment.

The Times, referring to the archdiocese’s First Amendment argument, stated Florida, New Hampshire and Massachusetts courts have all turned down that same argument.

Mary Jane McGraw, Voice of the Faithful Southern California coordinator, opened the Voice of the Faithful/Call to Action meeting by quoting Eli Wiesel’s comment, “There doesn’t seem to be a moral voice on the planet.” She added, “If we all have a sense of morality, maybe waiting for the one Gandhi, or Mother Teresa or John XXIII is not the way we’re moving now. Maybe the Spirit’s calling all of us together and maybe the voice we’re waiting for is our own.”

With that, McGraw, riffling through 42 pages of computer printouts of the names of abusing priests, said, “The names that aren’t in here would fill a book the size of this year’s tax papers. So let’s talk about people who have known these things and done nothing.”

McGraw referred to the survivors of abuse as “the martyrs of this age.” She introduced Mary Grant of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, SNAP, Southern California region coordinator, saying, “This Mary has stood at the foot of the cross and pondered at what happened to her, and happened to all these children. If what has happened to them isn’t a martyrdom, then I don’t know what is.”

Voice of the Faithful and SNAP’s goals, said McGraw, include encouraging parishioners to open their eyes to the reality.

Grant said as a 13-year-old she was molested by Fr. John Lenihan, who later stalked her, found her and abused her again. The Orange diocese was notified by letter. She said when later she went to the diocese, the bishop told her she was the only case and they didn’t handle isolated cases. “I was the only one I knew of. I believed the bishop,” she said. “They even said no other child had ever been abused in the diocese.”

That silenced her, she said. As an adult, when she saw Lenihan’s photograph in the newspaper, she was angry and sued the diocese despite the expiration of the statute of limitations “to try to force the diocese to do the right thing.” Another girl, 16-year-old Lori Haigh, was both molested and impregnated and made to have by an abortion by Lenihan.

Haigh’s case was settled by the Orange County diocese in 2002 for $1.2 million.

In her case, Grant early discovered that everyone was prepared to give the diocese the benefit of the doubt. In 1991, she went to the local paper, the Orange County Register. “Remember, this was 1991,” she said. “No one was coming forward. I was blasted by the bishop. There were threatening phone calls. My windows were smashed. That silenced me for another year.”

Someone sent her a clipping on an abuse case like hers on the other side of the country. She made contact with other victims, she said, and gradually the survivors network grew into SNAP.

“Then I was really angry,” she said, “because I saw it was widespread, priests were doing it all over the country and bishops were hiding it all over the country. Nobody was talking about it. SNAP was the only place we could go to talk.”

She found other victims in California and they met for lunch, and gradually a West Coast contact and support group came into being. “Boston finally validated what we’d been telling people for so many years.

“The church today better watch out,” warned Grant, “because the survivors coming forward now are not like the early ones. When we started we were just trying to find other victims.”

On attempts to suppress what is in archdiocesan documents, Grant commented, “Pardon me, Cardinal Mahony, but all these special privileges ‘men of God’ have been given? Who gave them? These bishops are not special. I don’t know why the law accommodates them.”

Thirty-year veteran detective Dale Barraclough, 20 years in the Los Angeles Police Department Juvenile Division’s Sexually Exploited Child Unit he now heads, said unit detectives understand how long it takes for some victims to come forward. He referred to a case he investigated two decades ago at the San Fernando Mission.

At that time, he said, young boys considering the priesthood studied at the mission all week, spent the nights there on cots, and went home on weekends.

Barraclough said the case emerged when one boy took home an illustration of the international warning sign, a circle with a bar across, in this case across a hand-drawn hand, with the note, “Father Fessard’s hand.”

The priest was Fr. Gerald Fessard, the detective said, who on night checks with his flashlight, would put his hand under the covers and fondle the boys’ genitals.

“We interviewed the whole school,” said Barraclough, “identified six or seven victims. But just today, almost 20 years later, a couple more have come forward. I haven’t interviewed them yet, but I’m sure they’ve been severely victimized through this whole last 20 years.”

A year ago, said Barraclough, “when what was happening on the East Coast was creating such a roar, our police chief instructed my partner and myself to get from Cardinal Mahony information on priests dismissed from the priesthood.”

The chief also added four more investigators to the unit, just to concentrate on clerical sex abuse, he said.

Barraclough explained the significance of the withheld documents.

Within the city of Los Angeles alone, he said, the department has 67 priests suspected of sex abuse. Most cases are multiple victims. Even so, in many cases the police so far may have only one name, that of the victim making the charge.

In order to get a case moving and to prosecute, the detective said, independent corroboration is required from another source. And if in the archdiocesan documents an accused priest is mentioned in a different incident, no matter how minor, that incident is the corroboration the detectives seek.

Barraclough appealed to those at the meeting: “There is confidentiality. If you know a victim who hasn’t reported the molestation to the police department, they must do that. For their own sake, and for others waiting for them to report. I feel very strongly about that.”

Brown, who has been with the police department 29 years, 22 of them in the juvenile division, described the five criminal arrests of priests already made, and said five more are imminent. He gave the details behind the arrest of Fr. G. Neville Rucker, “our most notorious case.” Rucker is accused of abusing 31 children, only one a boy. “He covers four decades and four Los Angeles parishes,” Brown said. (A woman present at the joint meeting identified herself as one of Rucker’s victims.)

Rucker, who lives in a retirement home, was on a 60-day cruise to Russia when Brown, working through a variety of law enforcement agencies, the shipping company and the liner’s captain, had the ship diverted to U.S. waters in the Aleutian Islands, where Rucker was taken into custody.

Two plaintiffs’ lawyers, Tony DiMarco of the law firm of Kiesel, Boucher, Larson of Beverly Hills, and John Manly, who practices in Costa Mesa, addressed the group. DiMarco said lawyers pressed to have the statute of limitations lifted “because children do not come forward. People come forward in their 20s or later and, unfortunately, in many states around the country age 26 is the cut-off.”

“We’re aware in Los Angeles of approximately 130 priests where there are accusations at this stage,” said DiMarco. “We represent multiple victims, and from meetings with others police, attorneys, victims, support groups we’re aware these multiples are dwarfed by the actual numbers out there.

“It’s not hard to understand why victims don’t come forward. Their feelings of shame and guilt persist to this day. It is so much to overcome. That is why those who come forward need encouragement and respect. Others need to know they’re not alone out there.”

February this year ended for the archdiocese with the highly popular archdiocesan Religious Education Congress. It was leafleted by Voice of the Faithful and the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests.

Mahony was a major congress figure. In addition to fulfilling official and liturgical functions, he enjoyed an extended walk throughout the convention hall. In keeping with his reputation, he wandered alone along corridors and through the exhibition hall, chatting, blessing, conferring with those who approached him.

Many Catholics who see Mahony in such settings find it hard if not impossible to join in the criticism of the church’s handling of the sex abuse scandal. They stand with those committed to an adamant defense of the institution despite everything.

Voice of the Faithful and SNAP are hoping to change that.

One approach is increased visibility and activity; another is the creation of La Voz de los Fieles, a Spanish-language Voice of the Faithful section.

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