THE BLOG

As Los Angeles Church Divulges Documents, Prosecutions May Follow

01/10/2013 11:04 am ET | Updated Mar 12, 2013

After years of delay, orchestrated by some of the most able lawyers in the country, the Catholic Church may soon reveal more truth about how it dealt with priests who sexually abused hundreds of children in the sprawling Archdiocese of Los Angeles. A court order issued Monday, in a case joined by the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press, requires the release of more than 30,000 pages of documents, with the names of abusers and their superiors un-redacted. Considering previous actions by higher courts, Judge Emilie Elias's decision is likely to survive appeals and the deluge of new facts could occur in weeks, if not days.

At the very least, the memos, personnel files and psychiatric reports will give the public an unprecedented look inside the process followed by then Cardinal Roger Mahony and his fellow officials, as they received complaints about priests whose crimes included the serial rape of minors. The papers will also reveal something of the Catholic hierarchy's mindset as it weighed the imperatives of the law against the needs of the Church. At times in the decades-long, international sexual abuse crisis, top churchmen did cover-up crimes and protect perpetrators. It's hard to imagine this did not occur in America's largest diocese, where more than $700 million has been paid to compensate men and women who were sexually violated as boys and girls.

It's hard to imagine, too, that the files on notorious priest abusers, who continued in service after complaints were lodged against them, won't raise serious questions about the conduct of their supervisors including Cardinal Mahony. As the recent conviction of Monsignor William Lynn of Philadelphia showed, high-level Catholic leaders risked being charged with serious crimes as they sought to protect the Church from scandal and neglected their duty to protect the public. The self-protective impulse, reinforced by the oath cardinals take to avoid scandal, has inclined some clerics toward unconscionable cover-ups and evasions including the transfer of priests out of jurisdictions where their arrest was imminent. Transfers, including international reassignments, have permitted priests to escape arrests. Others have been hidden in psychiatric treatment centers out of the reach of police and prosecutors.

In Los Angeles, where a large community of victims maintains an active network of mutual support, the fight over documents promised in 2007 when civil suits were settled is the subject of frequent conversation and speculation. Victims have long wondered why their church has invested so heavily in expensive lawyering to avoid releasing documents. No one questions the actions taken the by the attorneys themselves, but they do wonder why Cardinal Mahony and his successor Jose H. Gomez required them to fight so long and so hard. Indeed, the battle had kept the abuse scandal boiling, and delayed the recovery process, for all concerned. The document stalemate was broken as the Times and the AP got involved and the constitutional weight represented by a free press was added to the scale. In her recent statements Judge Elias noted that the archdiocese's stated concern that innocents named in documents be protected, is far outweighed by the public's right to know.

The more discouraged victims in the clergy abuse scandal have long suspect that the hierarchs who made legal decisions for the diocese were hoping to prevent the release of documents that would embarrass and even incriminate Mahony and others. Victims also feared that long-serving public officials weren't much interested in humiliating or prosecuting the top leaders of the archdiocese.

Without a doubt, the facts that will come will prove embarrassing. Whether they spur the prosecution of Church leaders, including the former cardinal, will depend on the judgment of state and federal authorities and, perhaps, grand juries.In the past, grand juries considered the available evidence but Church officials were never indicted. A new grand jury, empanelled by L.A.'s new district attorney Jackie Lacey and presented with new facts, may produce very different results.