Zipped Up

S.F. Archbishop William Levada doesn't want the public to know about decades of alleged sexual misconduct by his clerics. But why are district attorneys in San Mateo, Marin, and San Francisco helping him keep secrets?

At issue in the case is a trove of material that the church surrendered in 2002 after former San Francisco DA Terence Hallinan demanded that Levada turn over records pertaining to priestly sex abuse occurring as far back as 75 years ago. Such records could show, among other things, when Levada and other church officials became aware of specific accusations against individual priests and what was done about the accusations and the priests.

At the time, Hallinan's move elicited grumbling from various quarters, including the San Francisco Chronicle, which accused him in an editorial of engaging in a fishing expedition. But shortly after Hallinan's demand, Levada quietly began to jettison some of his accused priests, bumping a few into retirement and placing others on leaves of absence. Not wanting to be left behind, the district attorneys of San Mateo and Marin counties fell in step with San Francisco, pursuing church documents related to clerics in their jurisdictions.

And some of what they found enabled Marin prosecutors to pursue Ingels, a high official within the local clerical establishment.

San Francisco DA Kamala Harris: Her office has 
elected to keep sex abuse documents related to the 
church under wraps.
San Francisco DA Kamala Harris: Her office has elected to keep sex abuse documents related to the church under wraps.
San Mateo County DA James Fox.
San Mateo County DA James Fox.

Now that Stognerhas mooted criminal action on most of the alleged wrongdoing described in the documents turned over to Bay Area prosecutors, there would seem to be little law enforcement reason for district attorneys to keep many of the records secret. But head prosecutors in San Francisco and San Mateo counties have refused public records requests seeking the documents.

In Marin County, meanwhile, the position of the District Attorney's Office on release of the records is muddled at best, with the office first agreeing to release the records, and then, apparently, undermining its own position by failing to file court documents that set out a legal rationale for the release.

San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris has assumed a pro-secrecy posture, rejecting the public records request that her Marin counterpart initially chose to honor. (Harris' press spokeswoman, Debbie Mesloh, said that the DA would comment on the matter but that she was unable to do so until after the deadline for this article.) Linda Klee, Harris' chief of administration and spokeswoman on the issue, says that making the church documents public would have a "chilling effect" on potential witnesses in future prosecutions.

Pressed as to why the public interest isn't served by making the documents available, Klee tells the Weekly, "If we did it for you, we would have to do it for everybody. Where do you stop, and where do you start?"

Klee says the public records law allows her office to withhold the documents, but she also acknowledges that it does not require her office to keep them secret. She says the decision to withhold is based on long-standing office "policy."

The policy could not be very old. Former District Attorney Hallinan says that his office had no such policy, that he declined to sign the protocol the church offered him, and that he believes the records that he obtained from the church ought now to be released under the California Public Records Act.

Hallinan also expresses disappointment that Harris, who defeated him in his bid for re-election to a third term in 2003, has chosen to keep the church sex abuse materials under wraps. "My policy was and still would be that when I received any sort of materials like that they would become public records," Hallinan says. "Those are materials that should be brought out to the public."

Like Harris, San Mateo District Attorney James Fox refused to release church records in his control. A letter from his top deputy offered little rationale for refusing the Weekly's records request, saying merely that his office views the records it possesses as "confidential." When asked about the matter, Fox cited his office's arrangement with the archdiocese: "We had an agreement with the archdiocese which obligated that there would be confidentiality, and we're keeping that agreement."

In its attempt to prevent the Marin County DA from making church records public, the San Francisco Archdiocese's legal team has -- perhaps unintentionally or unwillingly -- provided a glimpse at how the church has maneuvered to keep details of sex abuse allegations secret. In its court documents, the archdiocese reveals that it entered into written agreements with both Kamena and Fox; those protocols allowed the church to surrender documents to the DAs largely on its own terms.

Among other things, the protocols gave the church the extraordinary ability to determine what materials were appropriate to turn over and even stipulated that "unless compelled by legal process" none of the information provided was to be made public. Indeed, church lawyers cite this privacy provision as the basis of their legal challenge to SF Weekly's public records request.

The Weekly's position in the case centers on the argument that no private agreement can invalidate duties the California Public Records Act imposes on public officials, including district attorneys.

In briefs filed in connection with the court challenge, the archdiocese's legal team, headed by former U.S. Attorney and current Dean of San Francisco Law School Joseph Russoniello, asserts that the protocol entered with Kamena was developed after a meeting with the San Francisco DA's Office. The protocol, the briefs contend, became the "template" for a model agreement on the handling of church abuse documents later adopted by the California District Attorneys Association.

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