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Archdiocese Gives Files on Priests to Grand Jury

Probe: The attorney for the child-molestation suspects seeks a hearing to bar the material from prosecutors.

June 20, 2002|RICHARD WINTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles has handed over the personnel files of three priests under criminal investigation for alleged sexual abuse of minors. But prosecutors won't see what is in those files any time soon.

An attorney for the three priests filed a motion seeking a court hearing on whether the archdiocese's releasing of the files violated the priests' privacy. Until that hearing next month, the files will remain in the office of the county grand jury, which had subpoenaed them at the request of the district attorney's office.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley turned to the grand jury for subpoenas last Thursday to obtain the personnel files after the priests' lawyer, Donald Steier, protested the disclosure.

Archdiocese officials insisted that they always have favored the handing over of the files to prosecutors. "It is now an issue between the district attorney's office and Don Steier," said Michael Hennigan, attorney for the archdiocese.

The district attorney's office declined to comment Wednesday on the battle for the records, citing rules governing grand jury secrecy.

Cooley has gradually pressured Cardinal Roger M. Mahony to turn over information and records related to priests accused of abusive behavior toward minors. Cooley at one point accused the cardinal of delaying investigations by failing to turn over to police investigators vital information on abuse.

That pressure culminated last Thursday when Bill Hodgman, head deputy in charge of the sex crimes unit, successfully sought the subpoenas from the grand jury for documents related to Father Michael Stephen Baker and Father Michael Wempe, both retired, and Father David Granadino.

Steier's motion to quash the disclosure of the documents is set for early July before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dan T. Oki, sources said. Because that hearing involves grand jury subpoenas, it will be behind closed doors, sources said.

Court officials declined to provide any details about the proceedings because of grand jury secrecy rules.

Steier contends that state and federal privacy laws protect his clients from the revealing of the files' contents, which include psychological evaluations.

Mahony transferred Baker to several parishes after the priest told him in 1986 that he had molested young boys.

He later approved a secret $1.3-million settlement with two men who had allegedly been abused by Baker in the 1990s.

The cardinal has said that he erred when he transferred Wempe, who is accused of molesting children, to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center about 14 years ago without telling hospital officials.

Wempe was among eight priests whom Mahony forced to retire earlier this year after the archdiocese adopted a "zero tolerance" policy for abusers following a lawsuit settlement

All three priests named in the subpoenas are under investigation by the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. Prosecutors are expected to seek subpoenas for personnel records of some of the 34 priests under investigation by Los Angeles police, sources said.

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