Long a favorite of San Francisco Archbishop William J. Levada, Ingels had helped devise the American church's "zero tolerance" policy regarding priestly sex abuse that the pope signed off on in 2002. He had often been the church's legal point man in sex abuse cases, flitting around the country as an expert witness and going abroad on behalf of the Canon Law Society, the professional group devoted to the study of church law, to speak on the implications of the abuse scandal. In 2001, Levada tapped him to help set up the San Francisco Archdiocese's Independent Review Board, the panel entrusted with investigating clerics against whom complaints are lodged.
But in May 2003, Ingels was in a prosecutor's cross hairs.
His alleged victim, a male student at Marin Catholic High School where Ingels taught in the early 1970s, had cooperated with police in recording some recent phone conversations. In them, prosecutors said, Ingels had made incriminating statements corroborating the former student's account of being abused at age 15 during a family outing at Muir Beach in 1972. Even as Marin County District Attorney Paula Kamena pressed criminal charges, she was gathering information from another of Ingels' alleged victims, a woman who said the priest had also molested her repeatedly while she was a student at the school. (See sidebar, "Fast Times at Marin Catholic High.")
But Ingels was lucky. At his arraignment, his lawyers announced that he would postpone entering a plea. A month later, the U.S. Supreme Court -- by a 5-to-4 vote -- struck down as unconstitutional a California law that had extended the statute of limitations for prosecuting suspected sex abusers. The law -- enacted during a national furor over sex abuse in the church -- had allowed prosecutors to bring abuse cases against many clerics years after the alleged crimes had occurred. The Supreme Court decision -- Stogner vs. California -- said the retroactive lengthening of statutes of limitation from a few years to, in some cases, decades violated the Constitution's ex post facto clause, which prohibits the enactment of laws that criminalize behavior after the fact.
Along with many others, Ingels walked.
The Stogner decision stopped criminal investigations across California in their tracks. By ending any possibility of public trials in those cases, it also kept information on decades of alleged misconduct by Roman Catholic clerics from entering the public realm. Consequently, the decision kept secret the record of the church hierarchy's response -- or lack of response -- to reports of priestly misconduct.
In the eyes of victims' advocates and other critics, Archbishop Levada's handling of such cases has been notable for its lack of openness. Even after the Stogner decision ended the prosecution of Ingels, the archbishop continued to push for secrecy in sex abuse matters. And district attorneys of the three counties within the archdiocese's territory -- San Francisco's Kamala Harris, San Mateo's James Fox, and Marin's newly appointed Ed Berberian -- have taken what some other prosecutors view as extraordinarily questionable steps to help Levada keep records of clerical wrongdoing in Northern California from public eyes.
In recent months, lawyers for the San Francisco Archdiocese have taken the unusual step of going to court in Marin County, seeking to block the District Attorney's Office there from turning over to SF Weekly documents related to Ingels and other accused priestly sex abusers. The Weekly sought the documents in August under the state's public records law, and Kamena, who has since resigned as DA, agreed in writing to provide some of them. But the Marin District Attorney's Office also felt compelled to inform the archbishop about the impending release, and church lawyers entered the fray, filing a writ of mandate in an attempt to prevent the material from becoming public. The archbishop's petition -- a quarter-inch-thick legal filing -- offers many arguments for keeping the records secret.
Those arguments are based in a remarkable reality: The Marin County District Attorney's Office did not seek a grand jury subpoena that would have compelled the church to give prosecutors the documents. Instead, the Marin DA signed a legal agreement, or protocol, that, the church contends, requires the documents to remain secret unless a criminal prosecution is instituted.
Some veteran prosecutors consider the protocol -- a version of which the San Mateo County DA also signed -- extraordinary and unwarranted. "As far as we were concerned, that was like making a deal with the devil," says Los Angeles Assistant DA Bill Hodgman, whose boss, District Attorney Steve Cooly, rejected a similar agreement pushed by church lawyers.
Marin County Superior Court Judge Vernon F. Smith -- the third judge to whom the case has been assigned -- is to hear arguments on the church's petition Jan. 26.
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.