Fearing that scores of priests suspected of sexual abuse may escape prosecution, state legislators are considering extending the deadline to file criminal charges until courts decide whether Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and the Southern California priests under investigation have a right to keep church documents private.
Los Angeles prosecutors, who lobbied for the bill, said that without it, criminal charges could expire against about a dozen Roman Catholic priests and former clerics within the next three months when the one-year statute of limitations expires on those cases.
They said 50 more cases involving allegations of sexual abuse of minors could fall to the statute of limitations if the document delays continue throughout the year. The Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles is withholding hundreds of documents that it says are protected under the Constitution.
"The archdiocese has every legal right to defend priests accused of sexual abuse," Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said in a written statement. "The legal -- and certainly the moral -- obligation of the district attorney's office is to protect victims of clerical abuse and prosecute predators when sufficient evidence exists. [Freezing] the statute of limitations provided by this urgency bill will protect the rights of victims in the fair administration of justice."
The legislation is the latest move in the legal fight over internal church documents believed by prosecutors to show evidence of decades-old molestations supporting victims' claims. It points to a showdown that pits the cardinal, his attorneys and priests suspected of child abuse against prosecutors, plaintiffs' attorneys and victims.
Witnesses, documents or other evidence is needed to corroborate claims for prosecution of long-ago molestation cases otherwise barred by California's statute of limitations, prosecutors said.
Officials at the archdiocese said they hadn't known about the legislation, which was introduced Feb. 20, until Wednesday.
"We are just beginning to read the bill, so it would be premature to venture any further comment at this point," said spokesman Tod Tamberg.
Archdiocesan officials said they have been providing investigators with information. But some documents -- including communications between the cardinal and the suspected priests -- cannot be given to civil authorities without infringing on the church's free exercise of religion, they say.
Church officials argue that they have a constitutional right to protect disclosures between priests and bishops, regardless of what is said or written.
A similar court battle occurred in Boston just before the Catholic Church's national sex scandal broke in January 2002.
Judges there repeatedly ordered the Archdiocese of Boston to turn over the documents, which now number more than 30,000 pages. Those disclosures led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law as archbishop, in addition to criminal prosecutions and civil suits.
The release of letters and memos between priests and bishops appeared to corroborate the accusers' claims of molestation. The documents also pointed to top church officials protecting pedophile priests.
Plaintiff attorneys who worked on the case said the Los Angeles Archdiocese should have learned from the Boston experience.
Mahony's argument "provides a way for the archdiocese to justify the return to secrecy and confidentiality that's resulted in all this corruption," said Roderick MacLeish Jr., a Boston attorney whose firm represents 250 clients. "It's not going to happen. I hope this is seen for what it is: an attempt to slow the process down and hurt the victims."
The California Legislature has already eliminated for 2003 the statute of limitations for civil claims in molestation cases, a move the church has said it will challenge. Dioceses throughout California are bracing for hundreds of lawsuits. Church and plaintiff attorneys have been trying to see if they could mediate the suits.
Lee Bashforth, 33, told authorities last April that he had been molested for nearly a decade by a now-retired Los Angeles priest. The statute of limitations would bar filing criminal charges after the first week of April.
"It's pretty clear that the archdiocese is trying to run out the clock on the criminal side," said Bashforth, a Lake Forest resident. "This is standard Mahony operating procedure. They don't really care if they have serial child predators roaming the streets."
Prosecutors and plaintiffs' attorneys said they have received only basic information on the suspected priests, and very little that can help them prosecute cases. Prosecutors said the so-called hot documents that may help victims' cases are those that the archdiocese wants to keep confidential.
Authorities are investigating 70 priests and have made six arrests in Los Angeles County.
"We are kind of in a holding pattern," said Sgt. Dan Scott of the sheriff's Family Crimes Bureau. "The statute of limitations will start running out in cases, and that's why the D.A. is pushing for legislation."
Don Steier, an attorney for the priests, called the bill a red herring.
"If the investigators have victims who have voluntarily come forward, they don't need employers' files," he said. "Of course, that is unless the purpose of looking into the files is to find victims who haven't come forward voluntarily."
Prosecutors and investigators in sex crimes units said that they have been pushing since December for legislative action but that it has taken until now to get legislators to carry the bills.
Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) said she decided to write the bill after the L.A. County district attorney's office told her that many cases could expire in April.
"The one-year provision in the law is not allowing investigators to adequately gather information in these cases. Legislators never foresaw the complexity of these cases and the battles over documents," she said
The Assembly and Senate bills, which need two-thirds majorities to pass, were scheduled for votes within two weeks.
The Senate bill's author is Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana), a close friend of Larry Drivon, an attorney for scores of victims of alleged sexual abuse.
The archdiocese turned over hundreds of privileged documents to the court, where a judge will decide their fate. The church says notes of conversations between the cardinal and accused priests should be withheld from prosecutors under a prelate privilege. The archdiocese has also cited therapist privilege over records of treatment for sexual problems.
Investigators and prosecutors believe that admissions of criminal acts with minors are included in the documents and medical records the church is trying to keep secret.
Although a Los Angeles Superior Court hearing on the issue is set for April 1, prosecutors warn that appeals could take months.
Last May, threatened with a grand jury investigation, Mahony vowed to turn over documents linked to alleged molestations by his priests. "We want every single thing out, open and dealt with, period," he said.
Prosecutors said the cardinal's mixed signals have hindered their inquiries.
"Obviously this resistance is frustrating investigations," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Bill Hodgman.