Cardinal Roger M. Mahony's decision to appeal a court order to give prosecutors secret personnel files of priests accused of molesting minors has disturbed some critics, who called it "foolish and obstructionist," but pleased some priests who lauded its attempt to protect privacy rights.
Catholic scholars and lay leaders interviewed Wednesday said the Los Angeles cardinal's continuing legal battle over the files risks undermining gains in credibility that he and the nation's Roman Catholic bishops have made in addressing the sexual abuse crisis.
"It's not a wise decision, politically. But it's a wise decision legally," said Father Richard P. McBrien, a Catholic columnist and theology professor at the University of Notre Dame.
McBrien cautioned that he did not know the reasons why Mahony chose to appeal Wednesday's order by a state judge that the church turn over to prosecutors documents about two former priests accused of sexually abusing children. While an appeal, he said, could be "entirely legitimate," it also "looks to a lot of Catholic laypeople like the 'same old, same old' -- fighting tooth and nail to resist being transparent."
A. W. Richard Sipe, a former priest and author of a book on sexual secrecy in the church, agreed.
"It seems to me that standing up doesn't make it singularly heroic, but actually makes it look foolish and obstructionist," said Sipe, who has acted as a consultant to attorneys representing sexual abuse victims.
He said Mahony's decision would cost the cardinal moral leadership and "that far outstrips any gains they have to get from this obstructionism and lack of cooperation."
But Father Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests Councils, said the majority of American priests would be grateful to Mahony. "Most of the priests of the country will stand with him on this," Silva said from Chicago. He said Mahony's upcoming appeal was not "stonewalling," but an attempt to defend the confidentiality of the bishop-priest relationship.
Priests, he said, want molesters brought to justice. Yet, he said, that can be done in ways that still protect the general principle of privacy and don't disclose unrelated portions of files.
Father Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America, would not offer his own opinion about the appeal but said he could understand why the Los Angeles archdiocese would seek it.
"When you're dealing with the relationship between a priest and his bishop, it's not simply an employer-employee relationship," Reese said from New York. "It's also talking about the person's spiritual life and things that would be discussed within a family.... The concern is if priests know this kind of information can be subject to subpoena and request, they're going to be very careful about what they tell a bishop and what they write to a bishop because they know this is going into their files and may end up on the front page of the Los Angeles Times."
Mahony declined to be interviewed Wednesday. His spokesman, Tod Tamberg, said the appeal is about constitutional issues and would not affect the cardinal's commitment to safeguarding young people in the church.
In the ruling, Judge Thomas F. Nuss rejected Mahony's claims that the U.S. Constitution gave the Roman Catholic Church a right to withhold secret personnel files. Attorneys for the church said they would appeal the ruling, a move that could delay, perhaps for years, the delivery of any files to the grand jury. Prosecutors have sought the files for 27 months.
A court-ordered disclosure of similar documents in the Boston archdiocese eventually led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law as archbishop there. The documents, among other things, showed that the archdiocese had transferred abusive priests from parish to parish without alerting parishioners about the priests' pasts. Since then, the Boston archdiocese has been forced to sell valuable real estate to help pay large settlements with victims.
Since the sexual abuse scandal erupted 2 1/2 years ago in Boston and spread across the nation, Mahony has made forceful public statements about the need for openness by the church hierarchy in addressing the crisis.
"I welcome police intervention.... It helps us greatly," Mahony told the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas in June 2002. He said the bishops' new "zero tolerance" policy for sexually abusive priests would not greatly affect the Los Angeles archdiocese -- the nation's largest -- because it already had such a policy in place.
But in February, a national independent panel of Catholic laypeople investigating sexual abuse by priests criticized Mahony for citing privacy in refusing to turn over the documents to the grand jury probe. "This argument did little to enhance the reputation of the church in the United States for transparency and cooperation," the report said, calling the Archdiocese of Los Angeles "troubled."
On Wednesday, Illinois Justice Anne M. Burke, interim chairwoman of the review board, said that she highly respected Mahony and that he probably was following legal advice. Still, she said that an appeal could be seen as more obstruction.
"Our report discussed that one of the problems is the lack of transparency that got us into this crisis. I think the more we do to be upfront and to be transparent and say, 'These are our files and if there's anything there, we too want to make sure that justice is done,' [the better]."
Another review board member, Robert S. Bennett, said he did not know enough about the specifics to comment directly on the Los Angeles case. But, Bennett said the board's report "made clear that unless the church deals with these matters openly, forthrightly and promptly, it will have the effect of inviting the state into the church's affairs, the very thing the church wants to avoid."