A Secrecy Fetish

District Attorney Kamala Harris is going too far in protecting Catholic pedophiles.

Was Kamala Harris merely sloppy when she failed to disclose a crime lab scandal and the criminal backgrounds of police who were trial witnesses? Or does she have a policy of "When in doubt, keep secrets"?

SF Weekly's attempts to obtain her office's files on Catholic clergy abuse under the state Public Records Act suggest Harris favors concealment over transparency.

The records at issue may contain answers to a question of great public concern that has consumed international headlines during recent weeks: What did senior Catholic officials know, and what did they do behind the scenes, while priests accused of molesting children were shielded from punishment?

Cardinal William Levada was archbishop of San Francisco until 2005. He is now a top Vatican official and the Holy See's most prominent defender of Pope Benedict XVI against allegations that the pontiff has failed to adequately deal with pedophile priests. In San Francisco, Levada was known as a key architect of the church's practice of keeping abuse allegations secret, protecting abusive priests, and punishing church whistleblowers.

Portions of this record came to light in stories by then–SF Weekly staff writer Ron Russell in 2005 and in a May 5 story in The New York Times that recounted elements of Russell's reporting. By sifting through documents made public as a result of lawsuits, Russell learned that during the 1990s and 2000s, Levada helped keep allegations against pedophile priests shrouded in secrecy. Alleged abusers included Salesian Brother Salvatore Billante, who police alleged had sexual relations with at least 24 children, but charges were dropped after the California Supreme Court overturned a state law extending the statute of limitations for pedophiles. And so the full contents of archdiocese clergy abuse files obtained by prosecutors were never revealed at trial.

Relatively unscathed by his San Francisco legacy, now-Cardinal Levada is the chief Vatican official charged with responding to global allegations of clergy abuse.

"Given Levada's current role overseeing pedophile priests and cover-up cases across the globe," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), "it is more important than ever that parents and citizens and Catholics learn exactly what he did in San Francisco."

District Attorney Kamala Harris possesses San Francisco Archdiocese files containing details of how the church dealt with pedophile priests that go back as far as 80 years.

But Harris, the frontrunner in the June primary elections to become the Democratic candidate for California attorney general, has for five years rebuffed reporters' efforts to view those files, despite statements by former DA Terence Hallinan saying they should be released.

For the past six weeks, SF Weekly has asked Harris' office to comply with the request under the California Public Records Act. It has released nothing.

A prosecutor must be careful not to release records that might undermine an investigation, unfairly malign the innocent, or expose victims to publicity they don't want. But in this case Harris' office seems to be going beyond these important principles to a blanket policy of secrecy.

It's worth recalling that Harris was recently lambasted by a judge for hiding the extent of an evidence-handling scandal at the San Francisco Police Department crime lab, and for ignoring her constitutional obligation to turn over to defense attorneys the criminal histories of police testifying at trial.

Did Harris merely misinterpret the law? Or does she have a penchant for secrecy?

On April 21, just as controversy was heating up over the Vatican's role in the global sex abuse scandal, Harris' deputy, Paul Henderson, responded to my request by stating that Harris' investigative files were not subject to California's government transparency laws; her office essentially enjoys a blanket secrecy privilege.

I sent Henderson's arguments to California Newspaper Publishers Association legal counsel Jim Ewert. "That's flatly untrue," he said. The District Attorney's office "can release them if they want to. But they have decided not to."

I wrote to Harris' office citing Ewert's analysis. Harris' spokeswoman, Erica Derryck, changed course, saying they would retrieve and review the files to determine whether there were any I could view. Following half a dozen phone conversations and as many e-mail exchanges, Derryck said she would contact me on May 24, but I didn't hear from her. When I e-mailed and called her again, almost seven weeks after my initial request, she said she was still working on it. I have heard nothing more.

In lieu of releasing records, Harris' office ended up releasing a statement: "District Attorney Harris focuses her efforts on putting child molesters in prison. We're not interested in selling out our victims to look good in the paper. When this case was brought under Terence Hallinan, prosecutors took the utmost care to protect the identity and dignity of the victims. That was the right thing to do then and it's the right thing to do now."

This sort of statement drives abuse victims crazy. Joelle Casteix, western regional director of SNAP, was sexually abused as a child by a lay teacher at a Catholic school. She had to sue to obtain records pertaining to the incidents. She rejects Harris' rationale for keeping archdiocese abuse records secret. It's possible, even routine, to release records about pedophile priests while protecting the names of victims, Casteix explained.

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