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Victims' Groups Irate Over Prosecutors' Deal With Catholic Church

Jan 1, 2002 | San Francisco Chronicle

To the dismay of victims, an organization of prosecutors in California has been collaborating with Roman Catholic officials to create statewide voluntary guidelines on the release of old church records for clergy abuse investigations.

The guidelines determine such matters as how and when alleged victims would be contacted and what sort of information the church should disclose to law enforcement.

They provide a nonbinding framework under which the dioceses are not expected to search all personnel files but only those "known" to contain child- abuse allegations.

"It's like trusting the fox to guard the henhouse," says Mary Grant, a leader of a national group of clergy-abuse survivors. "Special privileges have long been given to clergy, and this is another example of a privilege that no other institution would be given."

The chief prosecutors in the state's two archdioceses -- San Francisco and Los Angeles -- say they have no plans to abide by the new guidelines in their own church investigations.

A draft model of the guidelines, approved over the summer by the California District Attorneys Association, is now before the California Catholic Conference. Approval is expected within a month.

The blueprint was compiled with input from various district attorneys and lawyers representing church offices, including the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

A two-stage review process set by the model allows a diocese's lawyer to "pull any confidential document from the file before it is disclosed to the prosecutor or the investigator." Such documents "shall be retained by the diocese pending possible compelled disclosure through the formal legal process. "

The model allows names of alleged victims and witnesses to be initially withheld from prosecutors if confidentiality was requested. Thereafter, the church would forward a letter from the district attorney to the alleged victim.

"AN ELEMENT OF TRUST"

Those involved in drafting the model say this was intended to balance the interests of public safety with victims' desire for privacy.

"It was designed with an eye not to give carte blanche access to the D.A. right off the bat," says Larry Brown, executive director of the prosecutors organization. "There might be a lot of confidential information in the files, there was concern on the dioceses' part not to give unfettered access.

"This protocol is premised on the belief that there will be cooperation. . .

There is some element of trust that is anticipated."

In their efforts to investigate clergy abuse, some prosecutors are relying on the church to report allegations. Others, such as the district attorneys of San Francisco and Los Angeles, have been aggressively pursuing records, including allegations filed before 1997 when state law first required clergy to report reasonable suspicions of child abuse.

Terence Hallinan, San Francisco's district attorney who last spring asked the Archdiocese of San Francisco for 75 years of sexual misconduct records, worries that the negotiated guidelines might tie the hands of law enforcement.

"I think this is a mistake," said Hallinan. "It has the potential of interfering with an investigation or prosecution.

"Why would we do it? This is not the way we operate . . . district attorneys are very protective of their independence."

In May, the San Francisco archdiocese voluntarily forwarded the names of about 40 current and former priests and lay employees who had been identified in sexual-abuse complaints. Information was furnished to prosecutors in San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo counties.

Steve Cooley, the district attorney of Los Angeles where a grand jury has been convened to investigate church cases, is also declining to use the model, as is the district attorney of Fresno.

IMPORTANCE OF COLLABORATION
Others, however, have already adopted it, including Mike Mullins, the district attorney of Sonoma County who chaired the committee that drafted the guidelines.

"It is an agreement for dioceses to provide us information which they received prior to 1997, which they are not currently mandated to provide," says Mullins. "I think it is important for us to collaborate. Our complaint before was that we weren't getting any cooperation."

This summer in Dallas, the nation's Catholic bishops adopted a zero- tolerance policy on all past, present and future acts of sexual abuse involving minors.

The move was prompted by a flood of admissions earlier in the year of sexual misconduct within the priesthood. Because of those disclosures, along with revelations that church authorities ignored abuse allegations and moved priestly predators from parish to parish, prosecutors from Maine to California began demanding personnel records, in some cases dating back decades.

But no other state is known to have a blueprint like California's, said David Clohessy, national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. He says the guidelines might be perceived as "underhanded favoritism toward the church."

"The process seems secretive," Clohessy says. "I'd feel more comfortable if D.A.s had invited public input to the process. If there is anything we've learned after 20 years of ongoing scandal, it is that the church must be treated like any other entity, with no special favors or arrangements or trust. "

ACCESS TO ALLEGATIONS, DATA
In Boston, where the sexual-abuse scandal erupted in January, the district attorney would not agree with certain conditions imposed by California's new guidelines, such as the withholding of victim names from prosecutors.

"We thought it was imperative to have victim names up front," said David Procopio, spokesman for the Suffolk County district attorney.

"Law enforcement wants the ability to look through raw data on its own, and only law enforcement should make the determination if an allegation is credible or not."

James Sweeney, general counsel to the California Catholic Conference, said the protocol was intended to safeguard the confidentiality of those who requested it.

"This was a reasonable and prudent accommodation," he says. "If it is clear from the allegation that it is not prosecutable, then the privacy of the individual is respected. This protocol assumes voluntary cooperation on the part of the church, which we are more than happy to do."


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