Clock stops in sex abuse cases
State extends statute of limitations during dispute over priests' files
Alan Cooperman, Washington Post Friday, April 4, 2003
California enacted emergency legislation Thursday to stop the clock on its statute of limitations in child sexual abuse cases while the Los Angeles district attorney fights Cardinal Roger Mahony over access to priests' personnel files.
Lawyers for the archdiocese of Los Angeles argued in court this week that the files are protected by the First Amendment and should remain confidential. District Attorney Steve Cooley, who has subpoenaed the records in a grand jury investigation, contends that they could help corroborate allegations that date back decades.
The epicenter of the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church has shifted this year from Boston to Los Angeles because of the grand jury probe and a deluge of civil lawsuits that imperil the finances of California dioceses.
The Legislature stepped into the fray after prosecutors warned that, starting next week, some accused child abusers would go free because a year of wrangling over the church's files has eaten up the time in which prosecutors must file charges.
The emergency bill passed both houses unanimously and was signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis Thursday afternoon. It freezes the legal clock on criminal cases until the dispute over personnel records is settled.
Facing Mahony's continued resistance, prosecutors accused the cardinal of reneging on his promise of full cooperation. They point to Mahony's own words from last May: "We want every single thing out, open and dealt with, period."
Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the Los Angeles archdiocese, denied that Mahony has changed his position or been uncooperative. He said the archdiocese turned over the names of accused priests, their alleged victims and the dates and other circumstances contained in its records. But, he said, the church does not believe that it should hand over psychotherapy reports and files on the "pastoral counseling" of priests by their bishops.
"It's in everyone's interest for this to be dealt with openly and honestly, so that we can begin the process of healing," Tamberg said. "At the same time, all the rights and privileges of all the parties have to be weighed. That's not backing away from openness. It's trying to reach justice in a balanced and fair way."
It is now up to a court-appointed special referee, retired Judge Thomas Nuss, to decide whether to unseal the records. But some legal experts predict the Supreme Court ultimately will have to rule on the constitutional questions raised by prosecutors' efforts to obtain church files in dioceses nationwide.
On Monday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a related matter, the constitutionality of retroactively changing the time limits on prosecuting old cases of sexual abuse.
Recognizing that victims often bury their experiences in shame and silence, California's Legislature decided in 1994 to repeal its three-year statute of limitations and allow victims of child sexual abuse to report such crimes at any time in their lives.
But the 1994 law stipulated that once a report is made to police, prosecutors have just one year to file charges and must present convincing independent evidence to corroborate the victim's story. Prosecutors believe church files could provide such evidence.
The challenge was brought by Marion Stogner, 70, who was charged in 1998 with molesting his daughters more than three decades ago. He contended the charges violated the Constitution's prohibition on ex post facto laws. The California Supreme Court rejected his argument in 1998, but the U.S. Supreme Court took it up on appeal.
Though the charges against Stogner have nothing to do with clergy abuse, a decision in his favor could reopen scores of convictions in California and undermine laws in many other states that have retroactively extended the time limits on sex abuse prosecutions.
California also has made a huge change in its statute of limitations on civil lawsuits, opening a one-year window in 2003 for victims of child sexual abuse to file claims, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred. The resulting deluge of about 300 suits threatens the finances of dioceses statewide, including the large archdiocese of Los Angeles, which forecasts a budget deficit of $5.7 million this fiscal year and has cut 60 staff positions.
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