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Mahony Stalls the Healing

September 14, 2004

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony is not exactly filling laypeople with faith in the credibility of the church. His efforts to block prosecutors' access to personnel files on priests accused of sexual abuse "did little to enhance the reputation of the church in the United States for transparency and cooperation," concluded a Catholic national review board. Mahony should display whatever moral leadership he has left, call off his lawyers and let the criminal justice system do its job.

A grand jury investigation of two priests came to a head last week with a ruling by Thomas F. Nuss, a retired Los Angeles County Superior Court judge appointed to referee the dispute, that the Los Angeles Archdiocese must turn over portions of the men's confidential personnel files. Mahony has blocked access for 27 months and is planning to appeal the ruling.

Mahony should look at how the Boston Archdiocese went from negligence to disclosure. Instead of endlessly prolonging the appeals process, it dropped its opposition to cooperating with state officials and turned over the names of every priest who had sexually abused a minor. It followed up by making public the personnel files of abusive priests and, after Cardinal Bernard Law's resignation, agreed to settle more than 500 lawsuits -- paying $85 million to 552 victims.

Mahony's attorneys argue that the disputed files contain confidential communications between bishops and priests and that handing them over to a grand jury would violate the church's rights under the 1st Amendment. Nuss agreed with church officials that they could withhold documents involving discussions between psychotherapists and patients. He also prevented disclosure of information regarding counseling, but he drew the line at documents that described the church's internal investigations of alleged crimes. Nuss ruled that the state's interest in prosecuting child molesters far outweighed any potential problems for the church.

Apart from the two criminal cases being reviewed by the grand jury, more than 500 alleged victims of more than 200 priests are involved in civil suits. Nuss' ruling does not apply to these cases, but the judge's reasoning is consistent with recent decisions in other civil cases in which church officials were ordered to turn over documents.

When mistakes are made, a moral leader is someone who owns up to them and takes steps to see they don't happen again, rather than stalling closure with questionable legal maneuvers. That's something Mahony should consider as he continues his efforts to protect his priests at the expense of their alleged victims.

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