June 1, 2013

Secret files document sins of the fathers

Since the Enlightenment, the Catholic Church has kept a secret archive for highly sensitive matters.

By VICTORIA KIM Los Angeles Times

(Continued from page 1)

Cardinal Mahony arrives in the procession for a mass for Coadjutor Archbishop of Los Angeles Gomez in Los Angeles
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REUTERS

Michael Wempe, Leonard Levine
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AP

It doesn't matter "whether the church gives a file a particular name," judges ruled in one 1988 Pennsylvania case, ordering the disclosure of the file of a priest who allegedly molested a "mildly retarded" boy for nearly a decade.

Anderson said that when he finally laid hands on the files, he felt shivers. "It makes you both excited and sick at the same time," he said.

Prosecutors in Toledo, Ohio, stumbled upon archives there while investigating a cold-case murder of a nun.

They had their suspicions trained on the Rev. Gerald Robinson, believing that new forensic technology linked him to the 1980 death of the nun, who was covered with an altar cloth and stabbed 31 times. In 2004, they subpoenaed the local diocese for Robinson's file but were incredulous at how little the church offered.

"I said, 'Three pages! He's been working there for 20 years!' " said Thomas Matuszak, then a Lucas County prosecutor.

Matuszak spent two weeks poring over canon law and applied for a search warrant for the secret files, using church law as probable cause. Detectives went to the diocesan headquarters with the warrant and came away with a 148-page file, including another priest's letter laying out his suspicions of Robinson. The priest was convicted in 2006.

In Pennsylvania, it was an accused septuagenarian murderer who sought the secret files. The man, David Stewart, had shot and killed a priest whom he suspected of having an affair with his wife. He demanded the Rev. Leo Heineman's records to prove he had fired the gun in self-defense.

After a seven-year battle that went to the state Supreme Court, the church was ordered in 1997 to turn over the file. In it was a letter regarding the priest's alcohol treatment and an anonymous letter about his erratic behavior, according to local reports. Stewart was convicted the next year of manslaughter but cleared of premeditated murder.

When claims of molestation by priests flooded into the Los Angeles Archdiocese after the sex-abuse scandal erupted in 2002, church leaders' reaction was to reach for each priest's C-file. Some already had a thick volume chronicling a troubled history.

New accusers wrote to the archdiocese about Wempe, by then serving as a chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

"I should have written this letter many years ago," one man wrote in a letter that was added to Wempe's lengthy file. "It would happen during weekend trips to the mountains ... a cabin, and in a vacation trailer."

Within months, the district attorney obtained grand jury subpoenas demanding the archdiocese hand over the confidential files.

The church fought prosecutors to the U.S. Supreme Court but ultimately lost. Wempe was convicted in 2006 of molestation and sentenced to three years in prison.

It would take a six-year legal fight for the church to publicly release 375 pages from Wempe's file dating back to 1978. In the pages were not only Wempe's abuses, but the blunt words of church leaders who clearly thought no one outside the church would ever read the secret file.

Terry McKiernan, founder of BishopAccountability.org, which collects clergy sex-abuse related documents from across the United States, said that Mahony was clearly a far more meticulous keeper of records than his predecessors and that may have hurt him when the archive was made public.

"I don't know of any other diocesan archive where scheming to manipulate reporting laws and access of law enforcement to these cases is as explicit as in these L.A. documents," McKiernan said.

 

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