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LA Cardinal's Sincerity Questioned In Legal Battle Over Priest Files

Apr 1, 2003 | AP

Last year, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony said he wanted everything related to clerical sex abuse in his Roman Catholic archdiocese to be ''out, open, and dealt with, period.''

But now with lawyers for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles planning to argue in court today against the release of personnel files, prosecutors are questioning the cardinal's sincerity.

''They have changed their stated position between one of openness to one of resistance,'' said Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney. ''What they say and what they do are two different things.''

As the church was engulfed by sex abuse scandals last year, Mahony leader of the nation's largest archdiocese, with 5 million Catholics consistently said he wanted to help those who had been sexually molested by priests.

Threatened with a grand jury investigation, Mahony pledged last May to turn over relevant church documents: ''We want every single thing out, open, and dealt with, period,'' he said.

But today archdiocesan lawyers plan to argue in court that communication between Mahony and suspected molesters is protected by the First Amendment. The lawyers say that priest-bishop confidentiality is a foundation of Catholicism and that interfering with it violates the free exercise of religion.

The district attorney's office is seeking the documents for cases against six priests it has charged with sexual abuse. It also is looking into allegations against dozens of other priests.

''The archdiocese has every legal right to pursue this in court,'' said Robison, ''but it's important to note that they could willingly turn over those files if they wanted to.''

Several telephone messages left for archdiocesan spokesman Tod Tamberg were not returned.

Dioceses in Louisville, Ky., and Boston have made similar First Amendment arguments recently in unsuccessful attempts either to block the release of church files or to persuade a judge to throw out lawsuits alleging abuse. A ruling has yet to be made on a similar argument from the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Pa.

California has become a focal point of the church's national sex abuse crisis because of a law that took effect Jan. 1, lifting the statute of limitations for one year on civil lawsuits alleging that an institution knowingly employed a molester. Hundreds of lawsuits already are being prepared under the law.

Plaintiffs' lawyers want access to the same types of church documents for their civil suits that District Attorney Steve Cooley is pursuing. Some question why Mahony is trying to keep them secret if he has nothing to hide.

''He and the LA Archdiocese are acting more like organized crime than organized religion at this point,'' said Lee Bashforth, a Newport Beach financial adviser who filed a criminal complaint last April against the Rev. Michael Wempe, a former Ventura County priest he contends molested him and his brother from 1976 to 1985.

Bashforth and other plaintiffs want the internal documents to see whether priests admitted their abuse and how the church hierarchy responded.

Los Angeles prosecutors say they must see the archdiocese's internal documents before deciding whether to file charges in myriad cases involving alleged sexual abuse by priests. They have asked the state Legislature to consider extending the deadline until courts decide whether the archdiocese has a right to keep the church documents private. Without the extension, prosecutors said, some 60 cases could be subject to the statute of limitations.

The Legislature is scheduled to vote on the issue next week.

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