Tuesday, April 18, 2006
High Court Lets Stand Ruling on Subpoena of Church Records
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
A ruling by this district’s Court of Appeal that allows the district attorney to subpoena records of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles regarding possible child molestation by two of its priests was left standing yesterday by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The justices, without comment, declined to review the ruling handed down by Div. Three last July. The Archdiocese had argued that the First Amendment creates a confidential relationship between priests and their superiors, which would be breached by the subpoenas.
Documents sought by prosecutors include letters to and from Cardinal Roger Mahony and the priests, along with details from their confessions and treatment. The priests have been identified in court papers only as Doe 1 and Doe 2.
The subpoenas are significant because similar records are being sought in hundreds of lawsuits filed by sexual abuse victims across the nation. Attorneys for alleged victims say that few other church leaders have argued for the broad privilege claimed by Mahony.
According to the church’s Supreme Court brief, counseling records are being sought in more than 500 victims’ lawsuits in California alone.
The church had argued that “state review of confidential, pastoral counseling ... inherently entangles the state in the internal religious life of churches and intrudes into religious practice.”
Lawyers for the church also said the subpoenas will “chill” the relationship between Mahony and the priests. The case already has had an impact, they said. Instead of counseling, priests are hiring lawyers and refusing to undergo psychological evaluations, the church’s lawyers said.
A discovery referee, retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Thomas Nuss, rejected that argument. He also held that the documents were not protected by the psychotherapist-patient and priest-penitent privileges.
The Court of Appeal agreed, except that one document, in which Doe 2’s psychological treatment was discussed, was held to be protected by the psychotherapist-patient privilege.
Presiding Justice Joan Dempsey Klein, in her opinion for the Court of Appeal in Roman Catholic Archdiocese v. Superior Court (People), B177852., noted that appellate courts in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts have previously rejected the claim that the First Amendment protects communications between a priest and his bishop.
“While it is true the right to religious freedom holds a special place in our history and culture, there also must be an accommodation by religious believers and institutions to the rules of civil society, particularly when the state’s compelling interest in protecting children is in question,” Klein wrote.
While the right to one’s religious beliefs is absolute, she explained, the right to act on them is sometimes limited by the government’s obligation to protect society.
In a a brief statement yesterday, the archdiocese called the decision “disappointing.”
“We accept the court’s ruling. This ruling will have no effect on the ongoing efforts of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to settle the civil cases through mediation,” said the statement, which said that the 14 documents involved amount to 21 pages.
District Attorney Steve Cooley said the issue is not whether the bishop is performing a religious practice by counseling priests. It’s whether a crime has been committed against children, he said in a brief.
“The criminal laws are neutral as concerns religion,” Cooley wrote. “Investigation of these crimes is no more invasive of a religious institution than of an educational institution or a health institution.”
In a statement yesterday, Cooley said the court’s decision “establishes an important principle that evidence of criminality be made available to appropriate authorities.”
Jeff Anderson, an attorney representing victims in the church abuse civil suits, called the decision a victory for transparency.
“Mahony has been successful in keeping secrets and avoiding accountability by one appeal after another, and this is the last road,” Anderson said. “The denial of their petition was a giant step toward child protection and ultimate transparency.”
The case is Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County, 05-1017.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company