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Judge Grants Mahony Private Deposition

Prelate prepares to face allegations he protected a former priest accused of child molestation.

September 03, 2004|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

A judge ordered Cardinal Roger M. Mahony on Thursday to submit to a deposition in private, granting the prelate's request as he prepares to defend against allegations that he protected a former priest accused of molesting several children.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ronald M. Sabraw also said he was inclined to place time and other restrictions on the cardinal's deposition, as sought by church lawyers, according to the tentative ruling he issued before Thursday's court hearing.

Attorney Donald F. Woods Jr., who represents Mahony, said he wanted rules governing the deposition to prevent it from becoming a media event. Woods said the cardinal has never objected to giving a sworn statement, only to the conditions under which he might do so.

Mahony would become the first U.S. cardinal to be questioned under oath in any clergy sexual abuse cases since 2002, when Cardinal Bernard F. Law gave testimony that when made public resulted in his resignation as archbishop of Boston.

No date or place has been set for the deposition, although the judge indicated he might order that such information be kept secret until it was over. Under the tentative ruling, a transcript of the deposition also may never become public.

Woods argued in court papers that the court-ordered protections were necessary "to ensure that the procedure is not used to publicly harass, intimidate or embarrass the witness."

Parallel litigation is pending involving more than 500 people who claimed to have been molested by priests working for the Los Angeles Archdiocese. Sabraw is presiding over more than 150 cases filed against the Roman Catholic Church in Northern California.

Lawyers for those who allege they are victims say Mahony's sworn testimony is essential to their cases because he transferred Oliver Francis O'Grady to an outlying parish in the days after Stockton police closed an inquiry based on the priest's own statements to his therapist about improper conduct with a boy.

The cardinal has denied knowing that O'Grady -- who later served six years in prison for child molestation before being deported to his native Ireland -- was an admitted pedophile when he moved him from one parish to another.

Most of the alleged abuse ended before Mahony became bishop of Stockton in 1980, according to his lawyer. At least two other claims, however, involve alleged abuse during his five-year tenure there.

This would be the fourth time that Mahony gave sworn testimony about his supervision of O'Grady. He testified in a 1998 sexual-abuse trial that resulted in a $30-million jury verdict for two brothers who accused O'Grady of molesting them. The case was later settled for $7 million from the church.

Mahony is a witness, not a defendant, in the six cases alleging that the Stockton diocese was negligent in failing to protect children from O'Grady.

Mahony was set to be deposed in April when a judge temporarily halted all proceedings in the Northern California cases. He has not been deposed in any Los Angeles case.

Woods asked the court to bar public dissemination of transcripts and videotapes from Mahony's deposition. He also wanted to limit the participants to lawyers and their clients, excluding experts for the claimants.

For security reasons, Woods had previously asked that the proceedings take place at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral or in the offices of Mahony or his counsel.

But lawyers John Manly and Venus Soltan objected, saying it would be cruel to force their clients to go to the cathedral for a neutral court proceeding.

Sabraw seemed inclined in his order to set the deposition in an Oakland or Los Angeles courthouse. But he appeared less inclined to limit the scope of Mahony's questioning, instead tentatively limiting lawyers to six hours of testimony.

The judge rejected the church's argument that some inquiry might be barred by 1st Amendment protections. But Sabraw said inquiring into "the workings of a religious entity is not by itself any interference with any religious practice." He said the lawyers could ask Mahony about "the secular practices and worldly manifestations of religious beliefs."

Lawyers, however, may not question Mahony about matters relating to the cases in Southern California, the judge decided.

In a related ruling, Sabraw told lawyers they must file separate lawsuits if they want to allege that the Stockton diocese illegally transferred valuable assets to protect them from people alleging injury in the sex-abuse scandal.

He also set a hearing for next month on media requests to lift a court order barring lawyers from disclosing information in priests' secret personnel files.

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