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Church Delays Reporting of Alleged Abuse

Crime: Archdiocese held off on telling police of charge against priest because case is so old.

June 08, 2002|BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles Police Department detectives, perplexed that they were not notified earlier, sought information Friday from the Los Angeles Archdiocese about a San Fernando Valley priest who was removed from ministry after allegations that he engaged in inappropriate conduct with a minor 28 years ago.

LAPD officials said they had come to expect the archdiocese to report names of accused priests to them, as church lawyers have done over the last several months.

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony has said repeatedly that he believes the LAPD should be notified whenever an abuse allegation is received in the three-county archdiocese.

But in this case, Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the archdiocese, said Friday that officials would first conduct an internal investigation into the accusations against Msgr. Christian Van Liefde to determine whether they were credible.

Tamberg said the alleged victim was advised to report the charge to authorities.

In a subsequent interview with The Times on Friday, Tamberg said the archdiocese was in contact with the LAPD. However, that was only after an LAPD detective contacted archdiocese lawyers, police said.

Lt. Daniel Mulrenin of the LAPD's sexually exploited child unit said the investigation could have been made more difficult by the archdiocese's failure to contact the police.

"We did not have this gentleman's name," Mulrenin said "We are still seeking information from them.... What occurred? Is it in our jurisdiction? We need whatever information we can obtain about it."

Friction between the district attorney's office and lawyers for the priests have delayed the flow of information for the police. Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said last week that he was considering other options, including what sources said might be the use of a grand jury, to obtain archdiocese records for law enforcement authorities.

Under Mahony's zero-tolerance policy, allegations of sexual abuse with minors are supposed to be reported to authorities immediately. But Tamberg said the policy does not apply to older cases.

"There are allegations that come out that are clearly and quickly determined to be false," Tamberg said. "This is a 28-year-old complaint. [The alleged victim] is an adult. We advise them ... that they may exercise their right to notify police."

The LAPD is handling 43 active investigations involving about 34 priests, including some who are dead. Most of the cases are considered old; only one or two involve recent sex abuse allegations. Many of the cases involve priests whose names were reported to law enforcement by the archdiocese earlier this year.

To avoid problems with the statute of limitations, detectives must prove that an old case involved multiple victims and that there was substantial sexual contact, among other things. That's why, detectives say, they need as much information as possible on accused priests' personnel histories and other records. Because pedophiles rarely have a single victim, police want to know as much as possible about a priest's personnel history. Van Liefde was pastor at St. Genevieve's Catholic Church in Panorama City. He was placed on temporary administrative leave last month pending the investigation.

Van Liefde, who also served as the chaplain for the Los Angeles Fire Department, could not be reached for comment Friday.

A statement to parishioners was read at the church last weekend. "The simple fact that a complaint has been made does not mean that Msgr. Chris has acted in an abusive fashion," Msgr. Craig Cox, vicar of clergy, said in that statement. "All people, priests included, must be presumed innocent until there is proof to the contrary."

A forum that was to be held last week at the church on the current sex abuse crisis was canceled. Van Liefde was supposed to host that meeting.

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