L.A. church sex abuse files may not lead to charges
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LOS ANGELES -- Over the past decade, there have been numerous calls to prosecute Los Angeles Cardinal Roger 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 Cardinal Mahony and his advisers 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 Cardinal Mahony and his chief aide for sex abuse cases, Monsignor Thomas 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," veteran defense attorney Harland Braun said.
While there are a number of different federal and state laws that deal with concealment of crimes, none has a statute of limitations long enough to cover acts in the 1980s, said Rebecca Lonergan, a University of Southern California law professor and a former prosecutor.
"It's tough -- very tough," Ms. 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," Ms. Levenson said. She added, however, that those types of cases are generally very difficult to prove in court.
Cardinal Mahony, who retired in 2011, and Monsignor 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 Cardinal Mahony and Monsignor 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, Cardinal Mahony issued a statement in which he apologized and recounted humbling meetings with about 90 victims of abuse.
First Published January 23, 2013 12:00 am