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Ventura County Seeks Clergy Sex Case Files

Retiring D.A. wants Cardinal Mahony to provide documents on at least 15 incidents.

November 01, 2002|Tracy Wilson and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury is demanding that Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of the Los Angeles Archdiocese surrender documents related to at least 15 clergy sex-abuse cases in the last three decades.

In a strongly worded letter, Bradbury told Mahony that despite promises to assist law enforcement, the nation's largest archdiocese "remains an obstacle, protecting priests while endangering future victims."

"We believe you have evidence of criminal sexual abuse that you are refusing to provide to law enforcement," Bradbury wrote in a letter delivered Wednesday. "It is time that the safety of children be put ahead of the fear of scandal."

At least three former Ventura County priests are suspected of molesting at least 15 children beginning in the 1970s.

Although the letter does not identify the priests, authorities have previously confirmed that Carl Sutphin, Michael Wempe and Fidencio Silva are under investigation for allegedly molesting at least a dozen boys during the 1970s and 1980s.

Bradbury, who retires today, released his letter Thursday in hopes of stepping up public pressure on the church to turn over evidence prosecutors want before deciding whether to file criminal charges.

Specifically, investigators want documentation of victims' reports of sex abuse, names of witnesses who were present when the suspected priests were confronted and reports by the priests' therapists.

Prosecutors in Ventura and Los Angeles counties contend the information is not subject to legal privacy protections.

J. Michael Hennigan, attorney for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which includes both counties, said the church has cooperated with law enforcement, but cannot provide some of the requested information.

"We have turned over the names of priests and critical information about every known incident in Ventura County," Hennigan said.

But under state law, the church is not free to hand over employee records, he said. In Los Angeles County, prosecutors and the archdiocese have relied on a retired judge to determine what can be turned over.

"We can follow that procedure in Ventura County," Hennigan suggested.

Since June, the Los Angeles County Grand Jury has issued subpoenas for at least 17 priests' files. The archdiocese agreed to release them, but the priests' attorney has blocked the release, pending a ruling from an appellate court.

"We are pursuing every available means to obtaining documents we believe to be admissible evidence in these cases," Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said.

Ventura County prosecutors say they are trying to get the documents without wasting time in court.

Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael K. Frawley said prosecutors have already spent six months building cases against the priests. And they do not want to rely solely on victims' statements, particularly when the alleged acts occurred decades ago, he said.

Frawley said the archdiocese is sitting on strong corroborating evidence and prosectors see no reason why it should not be turned over.

"The fact that they haven't done this is just outrageous," he said. "We know when accusations come in against priests, the priests are confronted and in some cases the priests make admissions. That is significant evidence of criminal conduct."

Frawley declined to comment on whether his office would call Mahony before a grand jury if the documents are not provided.

Earlier this year Cooley threatened Mahony with a grand jury investigation unless the archdiocese turned over similar documents.

Since then, Los Angeles prosecutors have filed criminal charges against three former priests. Michael Stephen Baker, the retired Father G. Neville Rucker and Carlos Rene Rodriguez face multiple allegations of child molestation.

Cooley said this week that "additional prosecutions of priests for child sexual abuse will be forthcoming."

According to Los Angeles law enforcement agencies, about 70 current and former priests are under investigation.

Law enforcement sources also say considerable evidence exists against the three former Ventura County priests.

Two men have sued the archdiocese alleging Sutphin, a 70-year-old retired priest, abused them during the 1970s on an overnight trip to Saticoy, near Ventura.

Mahony said he required Sutphin to undergo psychological counseling when he learned of the abuse allegations in the 1990s, and then forced him to retire early this year. Sutphin formerly worked as a chaplain at St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard.

Wempe, 62, is under investigation by Los Angeles County and Ventura County law enforcement agencies for allegedly molesting three boys between 1976 and 1985 while serving at St. Jude Church in Westlake Village.

Wempe has been sued by three boys, including a former altar boy who alleges the retired priest molested him between 1975 and 1977.

Silva, 54, who is living in Mexico, is being investigated for allegedly sexually abusing eight boys from 1979 to 1985 at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Oxnard. The men, including two who are now police officers, sued Silva and the archdiocese in May, alleging battery, negligent supervision and sexual abuse.

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