Archdiocese must turn over files on priests

Pasadena Star/July 26, 2005
By Meredith Pierce

An appellate panel Monday upheld a retired judge's finding that certain subpoenaed records regarding alleged child sex abuse by priests should be turned over to a grand jury.

The Los Angeles Archdiocese argued that 15 of the roughly 230 records in question are protected by the First Amendment and should not be disclosed.

Two priests, who are the subjects of the grand jury investigation, separately had asked the court to prevent any of the documents from being released to the grand jury.

Presiding Justice Joan D. Klein penned the 49-page 2nd District Court of Appeal decision, with two associate justices concurring.

"While it is true the right to religious freedom holds a special place in our history and culture, there also must be an accommodation by religious believers and institutions to the rules of civil society, particularly when the state's compelling interest in protecting children is in question,' Klein wrote.

The Archdiocese and the priests had asked the court to review a Sept. 7 decision by retired Judge Thomas F. Nuss that substantially rejected the petitioners' motions to quash the subpoenas.

District Attorney Steve Cooley had hailed Nuss' ruling as "a major legal victory, with national implications, for victims of church sex abuse, and a rejection of a so-called First Amendment 'confidentiality privilege,' which the court found does not exist.'

Prosecutors were also pleased with the appellate panel's ruling.

"This is a sweeping victory, really to me, for truth,' said William Hodgman with the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office.

Of the dozens of documents Nuss ordered released to the grand jury, only one a memorandum from a member of the vicar for clergy's staff to a priest's psychotherapists was found to fall under psychotherapist-patient privilege, the three- justice panel decided.

That document was ordered withheld from the grand jury.

The vicar for clergy is appointed by the cardinal to care for the emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual lives of the archdiocesan priests.

Documents that were ordered released include a status report on a priest's progress in therapy and a discussion on aftercare programs for a priest when he completes psychotherapy. They do not include significant medical information, according to the opinion.

"The decision is enlightening, and I'm not surprised by the decision,' said attorney Don Steier, who represents the priests. "However, I've always expected that the matter should be resolved at a higher level.'

Steier said he will be considering an appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Attorney Don Woods, who represents the Archdiocese, also said an appeal may be in the works, but that a decision had not yet been made.

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