Thursday, Oct. 19, 2006
Several weeks ago, Jeff Anderson, a leading clergy abuse litigator,filed a civil suit in southern California against Cardinal Mahony ofLos Angeles and Bishop Rivera of Mexico. The 25-year-old plaintiff wasthe child victim of sexual abuse by a priest under Rivera's andMahony's watch.
Rivera, the suit alleges, sent the Mexicanpriest - a known predator - north to California, where Mahony placedhim in a position with ready access to children. When it started tobecome known that this priest was abusing children, Mahony assisted thepriest in evading justice, by failing to report the abuse toauthorities, thereby helping him to leave the United States before theauthorities could arrest him.
The story is not unlike the stories of the shuffling of perpetratorpriests within the United States, except that, in this case, theshuffling crossed international lines. But what makes the caseextraordinary is the way the Mexican government has treated Anderson;his associate, Michael Finnegan; and the National Director of SNAP, theSurvivors Network of those Abused by Priests, David Clohessy.
The Decision to Bar the Attorneys from Entering Mexico
After filing the lawsuit in Los Angeles, Anderson, Finnegan, andClohessy flew down to Mexico City to hold a press conference explainingthe litigation. About an hour into it, they were approached by menidentifying themselves as "immigration officials," who ordered them toget into a large, black, unmarked van with darkened windows parkednearby.
Reporters yelled out that they should not follow the"officials'" orders. Anderson, Finnegan and Clohessy repeatedly askedthe men to show them identification or official paperwork to prove thatthey were really immigration officials. The men refused to show anydocumentation. They also refused to give Anderson their names.
Fortunately,just before the three men would have boarded one of the vans, Andersoncalled the American Embassy, which also told him to avoid getting intothe vans. He was told that they were not legitimate and that they mayhave been trying to kidnap them. Local law enforcement then gaveAnderson, Finnegan, and Clohessy a police escort to the airport.
Then came the surprise announcement several weeks later that Mexican Immigration had decided that these three men could not re-enter the country for five years, because of supposed visa violations. It would not take much of an imagination to assume that Church officials are behind this latest development. It wouldn't be the first time that Church officials have used political muscle to impede clergy abuse litigation. Column continues below ↓
How A Similar California/Mexico Case Played Out
TheMexican situation probably sounds like it could never happen in theUnited States, but there is a situation brewing in Santa Rosa,California, which triggers unmistakable echoes.
There, BishopWalsh was notified that a Father Ochoa had abused children. But insteadof reporting his knowledge to authorities, as both the Church's ownrules and the law require, the Bishop sat on the information. By thetime Walsh's lawyer finally did go to authorities, Ochoa had alreadyescaped into Mexico.
Bishop Walsh violated a state-mandatedreporting requirement, which is a misdemeanor in California, with thepotential for jail time. His willful failure should force him to servetime. It is obvious what needs to happen: The Sonoma District AttorneyStephan Passalacqua needs to insist on the strict observance of thechild abuse reporting laws.
Despite Church officials' publicrelations efforts at pledging the crisis is all over, those payingattention know it is not, and children remain at risk. (In a previous column,I discuss an instance of Cardinal George in Chicago covering up childabuse by a priest as recently as December 2005 - showing Churchofficials are still far from learning the lessons of this crisis.)
Thequestion of the moment is when and whether the law will actually beapplied to Bishop Walsh. No charges have been filed yet, and the delaysends up a red flag. In the "old days," when a bishop asked aprosecutor to let him clean the Church's own dirty laundry, theprosecutors deferred to the hierarchy. That was one of the primarymeans by which the abuse of thousands of children remained hidden forso long. There was another disturbing echo from the past when 13influential Catholic laymen wrote a letter to the district attorneyurging him not to prosecute Walsh for his "unfortunate error." As I'vesaid many times before, it takes an entire society to victimize thenumbers of children that have been harmed within the Catholic Church.
We now live in a new era, though, and the entrenched practices that are evidenced by Bishop Walsh's actions must be punished.
TheD.A. must charge Walsh. Otherwise, this prosecutor is going to send amessage to the world that the reporting laws apply to everyone butChurch officials, and that the D.A's office is willing to put theChurch officials' reputations and interests ahead of the basic physicaland psychological welfare of future childhood sexual abuse victims. Thedeterrence element in the reporting laws will be dealt a likely lethalblow if it turns out that they are unenforceable, as a political matter.
The Documentary "Deliver Us From Evil" Shows the Urgency of Prosecuting
Ifthere remains any doubt in anyone's mind - and there should not - thatpredator priests and those who aided and abetted them should beprosecuted, that doubt would be erased by the award-winningdocumentary, "Deliver Us from Evil."Releasing nationwide in the near future, "Deliver Us From Evil" islikely to re-energize the faithful against the church hierarchy'smethods relating to child abuse. But the movie transcends the Church --every citizen concerned about children should see it. It involves thesame Bishop (now Cardinal) Mahony who is a defendant in the Californiasuit with which I began this column.
The movie focuses on aninterview of child predator Father O'Grady, who talks directly to thecamera as he sits in a church, reciting his own history in theStockton, CA Diocese. O'Grady admits his serial abuse of children, andexplains that Mahony knew of the abuse. O'Grady recounts his ownrequests to be removed from access to children, and Mahony's ignoringthe request by assigning O'Grady to one site after another nearchildren. Although Father O'Grady's crimes are despicable andunforgivable, at least he was willing to talk to the filmmakerscandidly about why he was able to strike again and again, victimizingchild after child.
This is tough stuff, and perhaps the saddestpart is that O'Grady is once again in a position to find other victims.At one point, he was imprisoned and then deported to Ireland.Apparently, no one knows where is now, which is not good news forchildren.
"Deliver Us from Evil" has received glowing reviews in both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, as well as elsewhere, and is already getting "Oscar buzz." I predict it will have a huge impact.
Thepublic can set aside dry findings and reports regarding clergy childabuse litigation. Even the press can become fatigued by this story. Butthe impact of a film like this can supercharge the entire atmosphere.
Becauseof this film - and, more broadly, because we truly do live in a newworld when it comes to clergy child abuse --if the prosecutor in theSanta Rosa case is thinking that the best political move is to let theBishop go free, or if he does not have the stomach to press chargesagainst a bishop, he's dead wrong. He may well be walking into far moretreacherous political waters by declining to prosecute, than by doingthe honorable thing and going forward.
Jeff Anderson and hiscolleagues' experience in Mexico shows church officials, there, retainan iron grip on the government, enlisting the government as theirallies in the continued coverup of clergy child abuse. In America,though, prosecutors, like Lynne Abraham of Philadelphia, areincreasingly slipping out from under the hierarchy's thumb--and so isthe voting public.
Politics has the potential to play out,one more time, against children's best interests in Santa Rosa. Butperhaps not; there is movement in our culture that could level theplaying field for children - finally. Then the United States can becomea model in these cases, and Mexican authorities will be able to seethat there is another option.
Marci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law atBenjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University. An archive ofher columns on church/state issues - as well as other topics -- can befound on this site. Her email address is Hamilton02@aol.com. ProfessorHamilton's most recent work is