LOS ANGELES -- An effort to investigate sex abuse by priests in the nation's largest Roman Catholic archdiocese has grown into a lengthy and complex legal battle buried under layers of secrecy.
In a case pending before a California appellate court, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is trying to keep out of public view a judge's ruling on whether a grand jury investigating clergy abuse can see church personnel records.
A retired judge working as a "special master" dealing with some aspects of the case has issued a tentative ruling. But that decision is sealed, with the underlying documents.
Because grand jurors could eventually view the material, retired Superior Court Judge Thomas F. Nuss has ruled that everything relating to them must be sealed. He also has decided that all hearings in the case must be conducted in private.
The circumstances bear similarities to those in Boston, where the sex abuse scandal erupted in 2002 and spread nationwide.
In Los Angeles, the judge on the case appointed Nuss to take over part of the huge workload it has created. Nuss's job has been to review thousands of pages of church personnel documents and then decide whether they have to be turned over to the grand jury. By court order, the archdiocese is paying him $350 an hour.
The case has astounded some legal experts for its level of secrecy.
"They better have something important to cover up," Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson said. "Otherwise, they are wasting a lot of good will."
The Los Angeles County district attorney's office and a team of media lawyers are challenging the archdiocese in the case, which is scheduled for a hearing tomorrow before the California Second District Court of Appeals.
Lawyers for the archdiocese say their effort is not a coverup, but rather a simple matter of law. They are asserting protection under the First Amendment freedom of religion, an extension of priest-penitent confidentiality to cover communications between priests and their superiors, and adherence to the grand jury process that requires secrecy.
"The relationship between priest and church is a familial relationship," said archdiocese lawyer J. Thomas Hennigan. "It's not an effort to protect pedophiles."
But the priest-superior claim is a subject of fierce dispute. "I'm unaware of any law that says any time a priest talks to anyone in the church it's covered by privilege," Levenson said.
"This may well wind up in the Supreme Court," said Kelli Sager, a lawyer who represents the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Daily Journal. Both seek access to Nuss's tentative decision and open hearings in his court. Lawyers for the archdiocese said Cardinal Roger Mahony had favored openness, but his legal advisers had overruled him.
Hennigan and colleague Donald F. Woods Jr. said Mahony and the church face hundreds of civil suits in which internal documents, if revealed, could play a role.
In Boston, church lawyers made the same "prelate-privilege" argument, but judges ordered the Archdiocese of Boston to turn over personnel documents. The files showed that church officials allowed accused abusers to shuffle among parishes, and public outrage hastened the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law as archbishop.
Woods said the comparison is misplaced, because the Boston church documents were released by church attorneys because of "media pressure."