By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
Cardinal Roger Mahony has been compared to a mafia don for his obstruction of criminal and civil justice inquiries into the Catholic clergy pedophilia scandal.
Survivors of priest sexual abuse and even the usually tepid Los Angeles Times have called for his resignation on similar grounds.
Now, a Los Angeles judge has stripped him of his holy faÃ§ade and ordered him to turn over documents to a criminal grand jury, blasting him for acting not as a spiritual link to Jesus Christ but as a corporate CEO — a slippery one at that.
Rejecting the church’s First Amendment arguments to shield communications between bishops and priests, and chastising church lawyers for their misrepresentations to the court, retired Judge Thomas Nuss last week ordered the church to cough up 500 pages of documents related to priests currently under investigation. Nuss prohibited Mahony from maintaining secret archives to hide details of alleged molestation of children, which could implicate the cardinal in a cover-up of clergy sex abuse. “[Mahony] cannot use an investigation of a criminal act to urge repentance, psychological evaluation or treatment and then refuse to disclose on the grounds the State is now becoming entangled in religious matters,” Nuss ruled. “[He] may not keep confidential the potential evidence or proof of a crime by asserting that such disclosure would interfere with the communications between priests and bishops.”
The Nuss ruling marks the best chance yet for prosecutors to peel back the red curtain to see what the cardinal has been hiding. Yet Mahony, having danced circles around light-stepping District Attorney Steve Cooley for two years, and who most recently was seen in public benevolently blessing Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton, never seems to sweat.
Last Tuesday, after Nuss had released his ruling, which he kept sealed until a Court of Appeal forced him to release it, Mahony’s lawyer Mike Hennigan declared that his client was “95 percent delighted” with it. “We started with grand jury subpoenas for 30 priests and the judge has struck down all but two,” Hennigan said. “He has ruled our way with respect to 90 percent of the documents sought by the D.A.”
Hennigan was referring indirectly to the near-fatal blow delivered to Cooley last year by the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned California’s child-abuse law, squelched hundreds of criminal prosecutions of accused pedo-priests statewide, and resulted in the dismissal of criminal charges against 10 L.A. priests. Because of that ruling, which struck down the prosecution of older sex crimes, Nuss had no choice but to dismiss subpoenas relating to 30 priests under investigation before the grand jury. The D.A. then re-filed on two cases currently before the grand jury. Separate criminal charges have already been filed against former priests Michael Wempe and Stephen Hernandez, with trial and pre-trial hearings, respectively, scheduled for this fall.
Even before he was chopped off at the knees, however, Cooley had not exactly been breathing hot down the cardinal’s neck. Since the clergy scandal broke in 2002, slow and silent has been the mantra for prosecutors, who have sought indictments of priests through the secretive grand jury process rather than aggressively serving arrest and search warrants aimed at prosecuting the Catholic hierarchy for conspiring to harbor pedophiles and obstructing justice. Then there is the two-sided face that Cooley’s office shows: one for the public, one for the grand jury. “This investigation will take us wherever it leads,” says Deputy District Attorney Jane Robison, implying that Mahony could be a target. However, Deputy District Attorney Bill Hodgman, the lead prosecutor, has yet to target anyone but individual priests before the grand jury, according to firsthand accounts. Cooley and Hodgman would not comment.
So with Nuss’ ruling piercing Mahony’s holy veil, the question is, what next, Steve?
“They want Mahony, no question about it, but I don’t see criminal behavior,” says Don Steier, who represents numerous current and former Los Angeles priests accused of molestation, including Michael Baker, Neville Rucker and Michael Wempe, three of the darkest skeletons in Mahony’s closet. (Criminal charges against Rucker and Baker were dropped last year as a result of the Supreme Court ruling. Wempe was re-charged in a new accusation after walking out of jail on older charges that were dismissed.) “Eventually the D.A. will get to look at records, and there will be titillating facts, but not like in a traditional conspiracy case where you start rolling guys up and forcing confessions.” Besides, Steier says, none of his clients are inclined to talk — not that any of them have been asked. “What incentive does the D.A. have to start cutting deals, when he hasn’t made a single case yet? These guys have figured out that it’s in their best interests to say less, not more.”
Questions about when Cooley will come down off the fence are plaguing his investigation, inside the D.A.’s Office and in the public eye. “It would benefit Cooley to explicitly go after the cardinal because it would expand the relevance of his investigation before the grand jury,” Steier says. “He could ask for more subpoenas. But he won’t do it unless he thinks he has a case. And politically it’s not so simple.”