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Investigations Focus on More Priests

As many as a dozen clergyman are under scrutiny. Prosecutors consider whether to charge church officials with conspiracy.

June 12, 2003|Richard Winton | Times Staff Writer

Prosecutors are investigating allegations that may yield charges against as many as a dozen additional Roman Catholic priests accused of sexually abusing minors, a top official said Wednesday.

"When we've finished charging all the priests, we will take the steps necessary regarding hierarchy," William Hodgman, the deputy Los Angeles County district attorney in charge of the inquiry. "We will go wherever the evidence takes us."

To date, nine clerics have been charged with molesting minors. Investigators have held grand jury sessions and subpoenaed boxes of personnel files from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. A Ventura County grand jury questioned four of Cardinal Roger M. Mahony's top aides, and prosecutors have charged two priests.

Lawyers representing people who allege they have been abused by priests have amassed more than 400 claims against 120 defendants. Settlement negotiations with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles have been going on since early this year.

According to officials familiar with the probes, prosecutors are considering whether there is sufficient evidence to charge officials in the church hierarchy with conspiracy to commit felony child endangerment or to obstruct justice. That decision could depend on a retired judge's ruling, expected soon, on whether prosecutors are entitled to more than 2,000 pages of church communications that lawyers for Mahony insist must remain secret under the Constitution.

Hodgman said he is not considering a deal like that struck in Arizona, where prosecutors agreed not to charge Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien in exchange for his appointment of three outsiders to handle allegations that priests had abused minors.

"As a prosecutor, I am looking for accountability," Hodgman said.

Criminal prosecution may depend on a U.S. Supreme Court decision expected later this summer on a 1994 California law that allows prosecutors to overcome legal limits in decades-old child molestation cases.

The nine priests had left active ministry before they were charged. Most had been forced to retire. Overwhelmingly, the allegations involve incidents more than a decade old. One former priest, Michael Stephen Baker, told Mahony in 1986 that he had abused two or three boys. Baker was reassigned to a series of parishes until he was again accused of abuse by two alleged victims and forced out of the church in 2000. Another retired priest, George Miller, pleaded not guilty to molestation charges Wednesday. The flurry of civil litigation was spurred by a state law enacted Jan. 1 that removed for one year a statute of limitations in sexual abuse cases in which an institution knowingly employed a molester.

For the past five months, a half-dozen attorneys handling the priest litigation have agreed not to sue pending efforts to reach a universal settlement. Two attorneys, expressing impatience at the pace of the talks, broke ranks last week and filed 10 lawsuits against the dioceses of Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego.

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