Nearly 2,000 pages of church documents should be kept from Los Angeles prosecutors seeking to charge priests with sex crimes, attorneys for the L.A. archdiocese said in court Tuesday, arguing the information is confidential under religious protections of the Constitution.
A Los Angeles County grand jury last summer subpoenaed the records, which prosecutors contend will support allegations by more than a dozen adults who say they were molested as children by priests.
Lawyers for the archdiocese said Tuesday that release of the documents would violate fundamental tenets of the faith, including that of a penitent to a confessor, among others.
“Few priests will be candid and open unless these essential disclosures, these manifestations of conscience, are maintained in confidence as the archdiocese always has carefully done,” said Donald Woods, an attorney for the church.
The courtroom testimony Tuesday was the first open discussion of the criminal investigation of local priests by the Los Angeles County district attorney since the allegations were first reported a year ago.
One defense attorney said Los Angeles prosecutors are on a “legal jihad” against priests.
But prosecutors, in part of a sharp series of exchanges, said the files -- which they believe contain admissions of guilt -- are essential to their criminal investigation.
They also accused the archdiocese of conspiring to keep reports of child molestation from authorities and attempting to hold the church above the law.
“I’ve yet to see a right or privilege for someone who molests a child to get a free pass,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Bill Hodgman, the chief prosecutor in the clergy cases.
“We need look no further than Boston,” Hodgman said, to see the significance of the church documents. A court-ordered release of thousands of pages of documents in Boston early last year fueled the Catholic Church’s national sex scandal and led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law, the Boston prelate.
The Los Angeles archdiocese has turned over the documents sought by prosecutors to retired Superior Court Judge Thomas F. Nuss, who heard the arguments Tuesday. He said he will rule soon in the case, which will have a broad effect on investigations of more than 100 Los Angeles-area priests.
The district attorney’s office said it plans to seek scores of additional grand jury subpoenas.
Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who watched Tuesday’s proceedings, said the church documents will provide the best evidence.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Steve Katz accused the archdiocese in court of conspiring to withhold from authorities allegations of child abuse between 1980 and 1996. He said no cases were reported to police during that time by archdiocese therapists who allegedly heard priests admit to molesting children.
“I thought it was irresponsible,” said J. Michael Hennigan, a lawyer for the archdiocese, after the hearing. “There is no evidence in these records or anywhere of a conspiracy.”
Lawyers for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and accused priests argued that releasing the church documents would hinder priests from speaking freely with their mentors about the most intimate parts of their lives without fear of public disclosure.
Releasing the information, the attorneys argued, would violate a number of privileges protected by state and federal law, including freedom of religion.
“No man, no priest would come forward unless he knew, as all priests are promised, that this would be confidential,” Woods said.
Woods and Donald Steier, an attorney for several accused priests, argued that the church already has given prosecutors enough information to investigate the allegations, including the names of victims disclosed in the files, periods of therapy of all accused priests and the new assignments of the priests.
Woods said a judge in Ventura County ruled in favor of the church last month in a parallel case.
“Clearly what we have is a fishing expedition in the most intimate of waters,” Steier said. “It’s the people’s legal jihad against their perceived molesters.”
Prosecutors accused church officials in court of using the Constitution to hide incriminating evidence of sexual abuse by their priests. Cardinal Roger M. Mahony said last year that he would cooperate fully with authorities investigating the molestation cases.
“The archdiocese had an ongoing pattern of obstruction,” Cooley said. “And in my 29 years as a prosecutor, I’ve never seen that many objections.... The only thing they left out was the spousal privilege.”
Prosecutors said a church investigation into allegations of molestation is not covered by the religious privilege that protects the private confession of sins to a cleric.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Brentford Ferreira said that in every case his office has investigated so far, the priest did not initially confess to molesting minors. Instead, a church inquiry was launched after it received information from a third party. The church’s investigation, he said, is not protected under state or federal laws.
“The church is attempting to set itself above the law, and it simply cannot do that,” said Ferreira. He said other dioceses have turned over similar information to authorities.
As church attorneys and prosecutors squared off in court, the state Assembly unanimously passed a bill to prevent the clock from running out on the criminal prosecution of Los Angeles priests accused of sexual abuse.
The bill is expected to be heard Thursday in the state Senate.
The bill, which faced no opposition, is expected to be signed by Gov. Gray Davis by the end of the week.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday heard arguments challenging the California law that allows the prosecution of sex crimes from the distant past.
Because nearly all the Los Angeles-area priests under investigation are accused of sexual abuse a decade or more in the past, the Supreme Court’s decision could affect scores of cases.
Staff writers Nancy Vogel and Jean Guccione contributed to this report.