Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, rebuffed Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court in his request to keep two accused priests’ personnel files private, now must turn those documents over to a grand jury and face the growing possibility that he may soon be forced to relinquish more confidential church records involving alleged sexual abuse.
Attorneys for the Los Angeles archbishop had argued that all communication between a bishop and his priests -- including that about allegations of sexual abuse and resulting investigations -- was protected under the 1st Amendment. In declining to hear his case, the Supreme Court effectively let stand a California appellate court decision that rejected the constitutional claim.
This was good news for prosecutors, who said their inability to view such confidential records had hampered their investigation of two priests. The documents initially will remain part of secret grand jury proceedings but could become public later in criminal court.
“This will send a message that these sorts of records, this sort of information is not something they can keep secret and away from a lawful prosecution,” said Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley. “We’re entitled to go get the evidence where the evidence exists.”
Church officials called the court’s decision disappointing.
“We accept the court’s ruling,” archdiocesan officials said in a statement. “This ruling will have no effect on the ongoing efforts of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to settle the civil cases through mediation.”
Because of the statute of limitations, only two Los Angeles priests face possible criminal charges. But the archdiocese has been named in more than 500 civil cases, filed by people who say they were molested by priests or others working in the church.
After three years of private mediation talks, a judge in November placed 44 civil cases on track for trial later this year. Attorneys have requested priests’ files for the cases but said they haven’t yet received a response from the archdiocese.
The high court’s refusal to step in Monday may have a bearing on those cases too, constitutional law experts said.
“The bottom line is, the same principle will apply in the civil and criminal cases,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law professor at Duke Law School.
A church spokesman declined to say whether Mahony would fight the release of priest files in the civil cases.
The California appellate court ruling that was left in force Monday said “religious believers and institutions” must follow “the rules of civil society, particularly when the state’s compelling interest in protecting children is in question.”
Mahony has fought more vigorously than any other United States prelate to block attempts by prosecutors and plaintiffs’ attorneys to gain access to internal church documents, a stance that has drawn heavy criticism even from the U.S. bishops’ own national review board.
Leaders of Roman Catholic dioceses elsewhere, including in Orange County, Arizona, New Hampshire and Long Island, N.Y., have voluntarily turned over similar files to civil authorities.
“This has been an unprecedented and titanic fight,” said Jeffery Anderson, one of the lead attorneys for the alleged victims in the Los Angeles civil cases. “Only Mahony had the audacity to do something like this.”
With the Supreme Court refusing to take up the case, prosecutors will within the next few days receive documents in the personnel files of former priest Michael Baker and retired priest George Miller, both accused of molesting children.
Cooley said he would decide how to proceed after reviewing the 21 pages of information. The documents had been held by the court while the archdiocese challenged their release.
When the criminal investigation began in 2002, Mahony promised to cooperate with authorities.
But months later, his lawyers asserted an array of legal privileges -- including those protecting communications between a priest and penitent -- to keep 3,000 pages of documents involving priests from the grand jury.
Mahony’s lawyers compared a bishop’s relationship with his priest to that of a father and son, and even of a husband and wife.
“Public disclosure of the intervention, subsequent psychological evaluation and treatment, and discussion of restrictions on the priests will destroy the confidentiality and trust between the bishop and his priests, which are essential to the sanctification process,” church attorney Donald F. Woods Jr. wrote in court papers.
Criminal prosecution of priests was crippled in 2003 after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a California law that revived decades-old childhood sexual abuse cases by extending the statute of limitations. Because of that ruling, prosecutors dismissed molestation charges against 10 priests -- including Baker -- and an ex-seminarian. A judge also quashed the subpoenas involving all the criminally accused priests.
As a result, the grand jury investigation narrowed to only those priests accused of molesting children since 1988, which is within the current statute of limitations.
Baker was charged this year with molesting a boy in the 1990s, several years after church records show he admitted to Mahony that he had molested boys. He was sent to therapy and returned to ministry. Neither parishioners nor police were alerted until more than a decade later. Baker was defrocked in 2000. He has pleaded not guilty.
Miller has been accused in civil court of molesting five boys at three parishes between 1974 and 1991. The priest, who retired in 1998, has not been charged with any crime.
In 2004, retired Judge Thomas F. Nuss rejected Mahony’s 1st Amendment argument to keep personnel files closed and ruled in Los Angeles County Superior Court that any potential problems for the church were outweighed by the state’s compelling interest in prosecuting child molesters.
That year, a Catholic national review board appointed by U.S. bishops addressed Mahony’s aggressive legal stance. The board said his legal “argument did little to enhance the reputation of the church in the United States for transparency and cooperation.”
Matt Severson, an alleged victim of Baker who has said the priest molested him from 1976 to 1985, applauded the high court for “allowing the investigation of these former priests to continue.”
Severson, who has filed a civil case against the archdiocese but whose criminal case against Baker was thrown out because of the statute of limitations, said he expected that the church documents would provide prosecutors with more evidence, possibly including other accusers’ names.
“I just want to see this guy held accountable for some of his crimes,” Severson, 38, said. The release of internal church documents, he said, would provide “a bit of hope” that it might now happen.
Others waiting for their civil cases to be heard expressed relief over the Supreme Court’s stance, but said they remained frustrated by what they saw as Mahony’s attempts to wear down victims through endless stalling.
“We are grateful that the nation’s highest court, like so many California courts, is telling the cardinal to abide by the laws of the land,” said Mary Grant, regional director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
Times staff writer Jessica Garrison contributed to this report.