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The Cardinal's Stone Wall

Mahony sets the pace in protecting priests -- not victims -- in the church sex abuse scandal. His latest tool is a 'privilege' that might not apply.

March 17, 2004

When it comes to investigating priests accused of molesting children, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony is more aggressive than any other bishop in the country. At shielding priests, that is, not at safeguarding children from sexual abuse.

For more than a year and a half, Mahony has refused to release communications between him and his priests sought by prosecutors, lawyers for alleged victims and the public. As The Times reported Sunday, his chief lawyer has even invented a name for this stonewalling -- "formation privilege" -- and argues that to force the cardinal to breach confidentiality would violate state laws that shield communications between a priest and a penitent as well as state and federal guarantees of religious freedom.

Legal scholars and other attorneys say they doubt that such a privilege applies, even in church law. Courts in Massachusetts, Arizona, Iowa and Kentucky have ordered dioceses to release documents, but the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has so far managed to avoid arguing its case in open court.

In what is beginning to look like a tactical misstep, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office agreed last year to give the documents to a retired judge to decide whether they should be disclosed. It was supposed to speed things up, but the case drags on behind closed doors while the archdiocese pays the referee $350 an hour for his services.

What does Mahony have to hide? If the cardinal is deaf to the questions raised by his herculean efforts to withhold information, the National Review Board was not.

The independent board, appointed by the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops to investigate the church's response to the sexual abuse scandal, reproached only four bishops by name. Mahony was one of them.

"This argument," the board said in its report, referring to Mahony's legal tactics, "did little to enhance the reputation of the church in the United States for transparency and cooperation."

It does even less to assure parishioners that the church puts protection and justice for children above the welfare of priests (and cardinals). It also displays a stunning insensitivity to something almost as disturbing as priests molesting children, and that is the decades-long attempt by church leaders to keep it quiet.

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