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Lawyers for hundreds of sex-abuse victims have California's Catholic dioceses in a dire financial bind. Can church leaders finagle an escape, or are they ...

Wednesday, Jun 25 2003
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With absolutely no fanfare, Gov. Gray Davis a year ago signed into law a measure almost certain to have profound financial implications for the Roman Catholic Church, reeling from a clergy sex-abuse scandal that is the worst in modern times. The landmark law -- passed without a single opposing vote in the Legislature -- provides for a one-year window for victims of sex abuse to sue the church during 2003, regardless of how long ago the abuse occurred and whether statutes of limitation have expired.

Dozens of lawsuits have been filed against the state's 10 dioceses and the two archdioceses of San Francisco and Los Angeles as a result of the law, unique among the 50 states. Hundreds more suits are in the pipeline. Some experts say the litigation unleashed by the law has the potential to financially cripple or even bankrupt one or more California dioceses, already shaken by a drop in charitable giving.

Yet in the wake of clergy abuse revelations that led to the downfall of Boston's disgraced former Cardinal Bernard Law last spring, California's politically powerful Catholic leaders scarcely lifted a finger to oppose the measure. Instead, they watched helplessly as it swept through the Legislature at breakneck speed, aided by the co-sponsorship of two Catholic state senators, including San Francisco's powerful Senate President John Burton.

The bishops -- notably San Francisco Archbishop William J. Levada and the most influential of them all, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony -- held their fire while lawmakers enacted legislation that could be as damaging to the church as anything to come out of the state Capitol. But in the ensuing months, they've dug in their heels, quietly launching a counterassault to blunt both the effects of the new law and the increasing restiveness of local prosecutors, even as they offer fresh apologies to abuse victims and pledge openness and cooperation.

On the eve of the law's taking effect Jan. 1, a pastoral letter read in all of the state's 1,100 Roman Catholic churches warned that the church was about to be hit with an onslaught of sex-abuse lawsuits that could threaten the assets of church schools, parishes, and charities. The controversial subtext, articulated more bluntly in diocesan newspapers and by spokesmen for the bishops, was that victims who still considered themselves faithful Catholics should think twice before becoming pawns of greedy plaintiffs' attorneys. Levada's own spokesman warned of "a gold rush to get into the priest litigation business."

"The blame-shifting that the bishops have engaged in as a result of the new law is absolutely outrageous," says Father Tom Doyle, a U.S. Air Force chaplain and perhaps the American church's best-known whistle-blower on the clergy abuse issue. "That letter shows that the California bishops and their lawyers haven't the foggiest notion of the profound damage abuse victims experience."

Meanwhile, victim advocates and prosecutors accuse church leaders -- including Levada -- of trying to thwart their efforts to attain justice by stonewalling on the release of crucial documents related to accused clerics. (See sidebar.) Nowhere has the resistance been fiercer than in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, by far the state's largest, with some 4.5 million Roman Catholics, and widely regarded as a bellwether in the legal tug of war with the church unfolding throughout the state.

After declaring a year ago that "we want every single thing out, open, and dealt with, period," Mahony has done an abrupt about-face. Lawyers for the L.A. Archdiocese have challenged nearly every attempt by plaintiffs' attorneys to obtain internal documents, asserting that to surrender them would interfere with the relationship between bishop and priest and thus violate the constitutional separation of church and state. On the criminal front, although prosecutors have subpoenaed records related to 31 of Mahony's clerics, the documents have remained under lock and key for months on a judge's orders, off-limits to law enforcement investigators while the archdiocese's lawyers fight to keep them sealed.

Such resistance isn't confined to Mahony and Levada. Neither has it been directed solely at victims' lawyers and law enforcement authorities. As former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating's recent resignation as head of the church's National Review Board highlights, California's bishops have failed to cooperate even with the blue-ribbon church panel set up to investigate clergy abuse as part of the policy adopted by U.S. bishops in Dallas last June.

Keating was forced out after comparing Mahony and other bishops to "La Cosa Nostra" for the way they have tried to cover up the abuse scandal. Part of his frustration was with Mahony's alleged attempt to sabotage a survey commissioned by the review panel to identify accused priests -- a survey in which, at the time Keating spoke out, not a single one of California's dozen presiding hierarchs had elected to participate.


Even now, state Sen. Joe Dunn is still amazed at the ease with which the law relaxing the statutes of limitations for sex-abuse victims sailed through the Legislature.

An attorney who represented numerous clergy abuse victims before being elected in 1998, the Orange County Democrat -- who is Roman Catholic -- played a pivotal if unsung role in the law's passage. He hooked up longtime friend and Minnesota attorney Jeff Anderson, who has represented more than 700 sex-abuse clients in lawsuits against the church, with key lawmakers. And he was instrumental in bringing together the measure's two co-sponsors, Burton and state Sen. Martha Escutia of Los Angeles.

Even after the measure emerged from both legislative chambers without opposition, supporters feared there would be a last-ditch bid by the powerful California Catholic Conference of Bishops, which has long lobbied effectively in Sacramento, to persuade Davis, another Roman Catholic, to veto it. "The fact that the shoe never dropped says something about the extent to which the church has lost political leverage in this state as a result of the sex-abuse scandal," Dunn says.

The bishops were scarcely in a position to show opposition. Davis signed the measure on the eve of the momentous meeting of U.S. bishops in Dallas, at which the church's new sex-abuse policy was adopted. With media attention at its zenith, many of the nation's 195 Roman Catholic hierarchs were scrambling to demonstrate reformist tendencies. That was especially true of California's two clerical heavyweights, Mahony and Levada.

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Ron Russell

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