Church Sex Abuse Files Unlikely to Lead to Charges, Experts Say

Los Angeles Times: Over the last decade, there have been numerous calls to prosecute Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and his top aides for their mishandling of clergy sex abuse. At least three grand juries, two district attorneys and a U.S. attorney have subpoenaed documents and summoned witnesses. None of those cases resulted in charges against the archdiocese’s hierarchy.

The release this week of a trove of internal church records showing a concerted effort to hide abuse from police triggered new demands from victims and church critics that Mahony and his advisors be held criminally accountable.

The Los Angeles County district attorney pledged to review all the files and evaluate them for criminal conduct, but legal experts consulted Tuesday said the reams of new documents were unlikely to lead to charges, let alone convictions.

A nearly insurmountable barrier is the statute of limitations, the experts said. A quarter-century has passed since Mahony and his chief aide for sex abuse cases, Msgr. Thomas J. Curry, wrote memos outlining strategies to prevent police investigations of three priests who had admitted abusing boys. The 1986 and 1987 letters fall decades beyond the three-year statute of limitations for felonies such as child endangerment, obstruction of justice and conspiracy to commit those offenses.

“I can’t imagine them figuring a theory out that goes back that far,” said veteran defense attorney Harland Braun.

While there are a number of different federal and state laws that deal with concealment of crimes, none have statutes of limitations long enough to cover acts in the 1980s, said Rebecca Lonergan, a USC law professor and a former prosecutor.

“It’s tough, very tough,” Lonergan said. The only possible way to prosecute would be if the cover-up continued through 2010, an almost inconceivable scenario given reforms made by the archdiocese, she said.

After the scandal broke in 2002, the L.A. Archdiocese removed accused abusers from ministry, issued a lengthy public report naming abusers and adopted wide-ranging measures to protect children, including fingerprinting of employees.

Perhaps the only possible charge for which the statute of limitations hasn’t run out is perjury, said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson.

“If Mahony lied under oath in a lawsuit or grand jury or lied to a federal investigator, and the documents show something to the contrary, they might be able to bring charges on perjury or false statement,” Levenson said. She added, however, that those types of cases are generally very difficult to prove in court.

“I think people desperately want Mahony to have more accountability for what happened, but it would be very difficult in the criminal justice system,” she said.

Mahony and Curry have been deposed numerous times about their handling of abuse cases, but they were never asked about the attempts to avoid law enforcement detailed in the newly released files, attorneys said.

In addition to the passage of time is the issue of whether what Mahony and Curry did constituted a crime in the 1980s. The memos the men wrote made clear that they were aware children had been raped and otherwise assaulted and were attempting to keep authorities in the dark. They discussed giving the abusive priests out-of-state assignments and keeping them from seeing therapists who might have alerted law enforcement.

After the files were released, Mahony issued a statement in which he apologized and recounted humbling meetings with about 90 victims of abuse.

“I am sorry,” he wrote.

Former Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who oversaw a fruitless investigation of the church hierarchy in the mid-2000s, said “it would be great to prosecute” Mahony and Curry but noted that clergy were not required to report suspected child abuse to authorities until 1997.

“Whatever they did back then is horrendous, unethical and immoral to the point of biblical proportions, but it may not be criminal,” said Cooley, who retired last year.

The five-year investigation Cooley supervised led to convictions of a handful of priests but no charges against supervisors in the archdiocese. In 2007, he announced he was placing that part of the probe on hold until authorities could gain access to more internal church records. A spokeswoman for current Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey declined to say whether the prosecutors already had seen the files made public in a civil court case Monday. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, which convened its own grand jury in 2009 to look into the hierarchy, declined to comment.

Files related to 75 more priests are expected to be made public in coming weeks.

An attorney for the archdiocese said Tuesday that he did not believe the information in the files could be the basis for prosecution.

“Criminal misconduct is something vastly different than simply not reporting to police,” attorney J. Michael Hennigan said, adding, “That’s not to say that a creative prosecutor might not take a different view.”

He said the church’s policy in the 1980s was to let victims and their parents decide whether to go to authorities.

If prosecutors were to try to proceed under a theory of conspiracy to commit crimes such as child endangerment, they would face the challenging task of proving that church officials’ intent was to harm children and not just protect the archdiocese from scandal.

“It’s hard to sway jurors that players in the church intended for children to be abused,” said Marci Hamilton, a law professor at Yeshiva University in New York and a consultant to a 2005 grand jury report about abuse in the Philadelphia archdiocese.

The first time a member of the Catholic hierarchy has been held criminally liable in the U.S. for covering up sex abuse occurred in Philadelphia. Msgr. William Lynn, who handled job assignments as secretary of clergy, had returned an abusive priest to ministry in the mid-1990s. The priest went on to sexually assault a 10-year-old altar boy in 1999, prosecutors said. Lynn was sentenced last summer to three to six years in prison for child endangerment.

His prosecution was enabled by recent changes to state law that extended the statute of limitations for some victims and expanded child endangerment laws to include supervisors whose employees abused children, Hamilton said.