Cardinal Mahony implores Supreme Court to keep priest files confidential, cites 1st Amendment, confessional freedoms


Cardinal Roger Mahony and the lawsuit-wracked Archdiocese of Los Angeles have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule a series of lower court decisions, and protect the Archdiocese’s constitutional right to keep priest files confidential.

Fourteen files from Archdiocesan priests accused of sexual abuse are in question, all of which, the Church argues, the courts should not have access to.

It’s the latest step for the Church in Los Angeles fighting to block a subpoena from L.A. district attorney Steve Cooley, who wants to use the private files--some of which contain private penitential conversations--as legal testimony.

In a Los Angeles Times editorial, Erik Berkowitz, a LA writer and lawyer, said that while the Archdiocese is fighting an uphill battle, a loss mean be “a step backward” for justice.

“In prying open the church's files,” he wrote, “the courts also will be trampling on some of society's most important constitutional and civil rights — including the Catholic Church's 1st Amendment right to freely exercise its religion and an individual's right to discuss sins in private with clergy.”

“Ironically,” he added, “the courts might even be making it harder for religious organizations to prevent abuse by priests” in the future.

While many question the way that Cardinal Mahony has handled the scandal, Berkowitz said that this “doesn't mean we should hinder his successors from trying to do a better job.”

“Yet”, he explained, “that is exactly what the courts will do if they force these documents into the light.”

Priest-penitent seal 

Question about the priest-penitent seal and private discussions in the confessional have also stepped into the foreground recently, particularly in Los Angeles and in other parts of the country, most notably, New Hampshire where a newly proposed bill could require priests to divulge information about sexual abuse—even if it was obtained in the confessional.

On this, Berkowitz pointed out that “As with the attorney-client and psychotherapist-patient privileges, the protection of clergy-penitent communications expresses society's collective decision that it is more important to guard a confidential relationship than it is to expose what happened in a particular case.”

“For many,” he wrote, “the ability to communicate freely with their clergy serves the same function as psychotherapy. We may not see much value in providing this service to accused child molesters, but when the privilege is weakened for some people, it is weakened for all of us. Such communications are generally inviolate, even if they include admissions of criminal wrongdoing.”

Under Church practice, the bishop acts as primary counsel and many times, confessor, for the priests working under him.

Recently, another Los Angeles court, in a related case, ordered Msgr. Michael Lenihan, an Archdiocesan priest, to reveal whether a transitional deacon, accused of sexual abuse, came to him for confession.

Canon Law and Church experts decried the act as a blatant violation of the priest-penitent relationship--legally binding throughout the country--and demanded that the court withdraw the request.

Richard Thomson, Chief Counsel for the Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center, told the National Catholic Register that as Catholics, “our feeling is that the confessional seal is inviolable, no matter what the court says.”

He lamentably added that “People want to use the emotion of the sexual scandals to try to break down the sanctity of confession.”

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