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Bringing the Fight for Clergy Child Abuse Victims to an International Arena:
Cases Show that California/Mexico Priest Shuffling Also Occurred


Thursday, Oct. 19, 2006

Several weeks ago, Jeff Anderson, a leading clergy abuse litigator, filed a civil suit in southern California against Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles and Bishop Rivera of Mexico. The 25-year-old plaintiff was the child victim of sexual abuse by a priest under Rivera's and Mahony's watch.

Rivera, the suit alleges, sent the Mexican priest - a known predator - north to California, where Mahony placed him in a position with ready access to children. When it started to become known that this priest was abusing children, Mahony assisted the priest in evading justice, by failing to report the abuse to authorities, thereby helping him to leave the United States before the authorities could arrest him.

The story is not unlike the stories of the shuffling of perpetrator priests within the United States, except that, in this case, the shuffling crossed international lines. But what makes the case extraordinary is the way the Mexican government has treated Anderson; his associate, Michael Finnegan; and the National Director of SNAP, the Survivors 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, and Clohessy flew down to Mexico City to hold a press conference explaining the litigation. About an hour into it, they were approached by men identifying themselves as "immigration officials," who ordered them to get into a large, black, unmarked van with darkened windows parked nearby.

Reporters yelled out that they should not follow the "officials'" orders. Anderson, Finnegan and Clohessy repeatedly asked the men to show them identification or official paperwork to prove that they were really immigration officials. The men refused to show any documentation. They also refused to give Anderson their names.

Fortunately, just before the three men would have boarded one of the vans, Anderson called the American Embassy, which also told him to avoid getting into the vans. He was told that they were not legitimate and that they may have been trying to kidnap them. Local law enforcement then gave Anderson, 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.

How A Similar California/Mexico Case Played Out

The Mexican situation probably sounds like it could never happen in the United States, but there is a situation brewing in Santa Rosa, California, which triggers unmistakable echoes.

There, Bishop Walsh was notified that a Father Ochoa had abused children. But instead of reporting his knowledge to authorities, as both the Church's own rules and the law require, the Bishop sat on the information. By the time Walsh's lawyer finally did go to authorities, Ochoa had already escaped into Mexico.

Bishop Walsh violated a state-mandated reporting requirement, which is a misdemeanor in California, with the potential for jail time. His willful failure should force him to serve time. It is obvious what needs to happen: The Sonoma District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua needs to insist on the strict observance of the child abuse reporting laws.

Despite Church officials' public relations efforts at pledging the crisis is all over, those paying attention know it is not, and children remain at risk. (In a previous column, I discuss an instance of Cardinal George in Chicago covering up child abuse by a priest as recently as December 2005 - showing Church officials are still far from learning the lessons of this crisis.)

The question of the moment is when and whether the law will actually be applied to Bishop Walsh. No charges have been filed yet, and the delay sends up a red flag. In the "old days," when a bishop asked a prosecutor to let him clean the Church's own dirty laundry, the prosecutors deferred to the hierarchy. That was one of the primary means by which the abuse of thousands of children remained hidden for so long. There was another disturbing echo from the past when 13 influential Catholic laymen wrote a letter to the district attorney urging him not to prosecute Walsh for his "unfortunate error." As I've said many times before, it takes an entire society to victimize the numbers 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.

The D.A. must charge Walsh. Otherwise, this prosecutor is going to send a message to the world that the reporting laws apply to everyone but Church officials, and that the D.A's office is willing to put the Church officials' reputations and interests ahead of the basic physical and psychological welfare of future childhood sexual abuse victims. The deterrence element in the reporting laws will be dealt a likely lethal blow if it turns out that they are unenforceable, as a political matter.

The Documentary "Deliver Us From Evil" Shows the Urgency of Prosecuting

If there remains any doubt in anyone's mind - and there should not - that predator priests and those who aided and abetted them should be prosecuted, that doubt would be erased by the award-winning documentary, "Deliver Us from Evil." Releasing nationwide in the near future, "Deliver Us From Evil" is likely to re-energize the faithful against the church hierarchy's methods relating to child abuse. But the movie transcends the Church -- every citizen concerned about children should see it. It involves the same Bishop (now Cardinal) Mahony who is a defendant in the California suit with which I began this column.

The movie focuses on an interview of child predator Father O'Grady, who talks directly to the camera as he sits in a church, reciting his own history in the Stockton, CA Diocese. O'Grady admits his serial abuse of children, and explains that Mahony knew of the abuse. O'Grady recounts his own requests to be removed from access to children, and Mahony's ignoring the request by assigning O'Grady to one site after another near children. Although Father O'Grady's crimes are despicable and unforgivable, at least he was willing to talk to the filmmakers candidly about why he was able to strike again and again, victimizing child after child.

This is tough stuff, and perhaps the saddest part 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 for children.

"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.

The public can set aside dry findings and reports regarding clergy child abuse litigation. Even the press can become fatigued by this story. But the impact of a film like this can supercharge the entire atmosphere.

Because of this film - and, more broadly, because we truly do live in a new world when it comes to clergy child abuse --if the prosecutor in the Santa Rosa case is thinking that the best political move is to let the Bishop go free, or if he does not have the stomach to press charges against a bishop, he's dead wrong. He may well be walking into far more treacherous political waters by declining to prosecute, than by doing the honorable thing and going forward.

Jeff Anderson and his colleagues' experience in Mexico shows church officials, there, retain an iron grip on the government, enlisting the government as their allies in the continued coverup of clergy child abuse. In America, though, prosecutors, like Lynne Abraham of Philadelphia, are increasingly slipping out from under the hierarchy's thumb--and so is the voting public.

Politics has the potential to play out, one more time, against children's best interests in Santa Rosa. But perhaps not; there is movement in our culture that could level the playing field for children - finally. Then the United States can become a model in these cases, and Mexican authorities will be able to see that there is another option.

Marci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University. An archive of her columns on church/state issues - as well as other topics -- can be found on this site. Her email address is Professor Hamilton's most recent work is God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005).

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