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Archdiocese wants upcoming sex abuse trials moved far from L.A.

Church asks L.A. County judge to delay the trials or move them to San Luis Obispo County because it doesn't believe a fair, impartial jury can be found locally.

March 15, 2013|By Harriet Ryan and Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times
  • Michael Duran, holding two photographs of himself as a child, will receive nearly $1 million as part of a $10-million settlement of four men's lawsuits that alleged abuse by former priest Michael Baker.
Michael Duran, holding two photographs of himself as a child, will receive… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

In an acknowledgment that new revelations in the priest abuse scandal have tarnished the church's image, lawyers for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles are seeking to postpone upcoming sexual abuse trials or relocate them to a courthouse 200 miles away because they don't believe they can get a fair trial in Southern California.

The church's request to a judge for a delay or change of venue in pending cases this week came just hours after the announcement that the archdiocese would pay two brothers an unprecedented $4 million each to avoid a molestation trial set for April. The payouts to the men, part of a $10-million deal ending four lawsuits, dwarfed settlements the church paid victims in recent years and underscored the archdiocese's reluctance to face juries in its own backyard.

"We think that the environment in Los Angeles today is currently hostile," archdiocese lawyer J. Michael Hennigan said.

The January release of personnel files showing that church hierarchy in the 1980s and 1990s shielded abuser priests from police refocused public attention on the clergy sex scandal. In court papers, archdiocese attorneys blamed media coverage, which they described as "unrelenting obloquy, condemnation and contempt," for poisoning the potential jury pool.

The church proposed to Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Emilie H. Elias on Tuesday that four suits concerning a Mexican priest accused of abusing more than two dozen boys in L.A. be moved to San Luis Obispo County. In the alternative, the church asked for a trial delay of at least six months to allow what Hennigan called a "cooling-off period."

The archdiocese bolstered its request to the judge with a report from a jury consultant describing "an intense level of vitriol" in the region toward the former archbishop, Cardinal Roger Mahony, and the church.

Donald Vinson, who worked on the O.J. Simpson and Oklahoma City bombing trials, did not survey potential jurors but said that based on a review of media reports and Google search trends, "the defendants in this matter will not be able to obtain a fair and impartial jury trial in any venue within the Los Angeles media market."

He said the coverage had turned "passive consumers" of news to "active investigators of the issues" and cited caustic, offensive online comments about Mahony on KTLA's website.

Changes of venue in civil trials are highly unusual and Richard Gabriel, a jury consultant who has worked for many parties seeking to relocate cases, said the archdiocese's request was a long shot. Child molestation cases "engender very high emotions and very strong feelings," he said, but judges are "very stringent" in evaluating whether moving trials is really necessary.

"When you have a metropolitan area of 8 to 10 million people, it's pretty hard to say that out of that many, you can't find a fair and impartial jury," Gabriel said.

The archdiocese has always settled abuse cases before trial, but the possibility of making plaintiffs prove their claims in the unpredictable setting of a trial has been a negotiating point for church lawyers as they try to drive down the amount of settlements.

The change of venue request this week was an acknowledgment that the archdiocese believed it no longer had the option of going to trial in L.A. Hennigan, who as the archdiocese's lead litigator has overseen two massive settlements totaling $720 million and dozens of smaller payouts, said he had no confidence in local juries given the "media frenzy about the events happening 20-plus years ago."

"It is not likely that there is anyone who has not been affected" by the publicity, Hennigan said.

The $4-million settlements to two brothers seemed to reflect a changing landscape. The priest accused by the men, Michael Baker, is suspected of molesting at least 23 minors and was convicted criminally of abusing two boys. He admitted molesting youths in a private conversation with Mahony in 1986. Mahony sent him for treatment but returned him to ministry and Baker molested again.

When the brothers initially filed their case in 2011, the church expressed strong doubts about the validity of their claim. A third, older brother received a $2.2-million settlement from the church the previous year for molestation by Baker and archdiocese attorneys suggested the subsequent suit was a money grab.

"Each has previously denied that any abuse occurred at all…. Neither came forward until after their brother received a multimillion-dollar settlement," church lawyers wrote.

Baker admitted molesting the older brother of the men suing him but told sheriff's detectives he never touched them and volunteered to take a polygraph. Prosecutors declined to file charges.

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