Priests’ Privacy Rights Cannot Override Protection of Children

[See Judge Lichtman’s order. On the Franciscans at St. Anthony’s Seminary, see also 11 Friars Molested Seminary Students, Church Inquiry Says, by Seth Mydans, New York Times (December 1, 1993); Sex ‘Vibes’ Permeated Seminary, Victim Says, by Seth Mydans, New York Times (December 1, 1993); The St. Anthony’s Seminary Report, by Geoffrey B. Stearns et al., commissioned by the Franciscans (November 1993); and Deal Reached in Franciscan Sex Abuse Suits, by Jean Guccione, Los Angeles Times (March 14, 2006).]

On June 18, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Peter Lichtman issued a sweeping decision that overruled the privacy objections of the Santa Barbara Franciscan Order and some of its priests who were accused of serial acts of molestation upon children. The ruling arose out of a huge settlement paid by the Santa Barbara province of the Franciscan order to compensate literally dozens of victims of sexual abuse by members of the province for more than 30 years.

The acts of abuse at issue included anal sodomy, oral and digital penetration of children and grotesque sadomasochistic acts. Many of the abusers used their position as priests to initially access the children sexually. At no time did the province undertake to report the abusers to the police or child protective services on its own. Further, none of the religious superiors in charge at the time took action that could have prevented further abuse.

The situation was particularly grim at St. Anthony’s minor seminary in Santa Barbara. Ostensibly, it was a boarding high school. In reality, it was a house of horrors where literally dozens of boys were ravaged by men ostensibly devoted to serving Jesus. The damage done to these children by the Franciscans is incalculable.

Another aggravating factor is that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles took no action against the Santa Barbara province during the abuse. Perhaps coincidentally, the Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles then in charge of the Santa Barbara region was Bishop G. Patrick Ziemann. Ziemann has now admitted to extorting sex from a priest while a bishop. He also has several cases pending against him alleging that he himself was a child abuser while a priest in the Los Angeles Archdiocese. There was literally no one in the church hierarchy who acted to protect the children at St. Anthony’s or other locations run by the Franciscans at issue. The molestations at the school continued unabated for years.

It was against this factual backdrop that Judge Lichtman was charged with analyzing the disclosure of the documents. Judge Lichtman’s opinion analyzed the privacy objections and attempted to balance them against California’s strong preference for disclosure and transparency. The opinion turned on his conclusion that the state has no greater interest than protecting children.

In the opinion, Judge Lichtman cited numerous facts to support his reasoning for disclosure. He specifically discussed the case of Father Franklin Becker. In sworn testimony, Becker testified about “his attraction to boys, his interest in the Man-Boy Love Association, his leanings toward being attracted to post-pubescent boys, and [the fact] that he gave the names of people who might come forward with allegations (against Becker) to the Archdiocese.” Lichtman also pointed out that the Santa Barbara Franciscans had one of the highest concentrations of abusers in the country. According to the opinion, they had 41 clergy accused of molesting 51 children.

It is ironic that church lawyers vociferously asserted the Franciscans’ right to privacy in seeking to keep the documents secret. This is the same church that has repeatedly sought the reversal of Roe v. Wade, which dramatically expanded the federal right to privacy. The Franciscans’ attempt to keep the acts of their pedophiles secret, coupled with their remarkable newfound respect for the constitutional right to privacy, is disturbing for several reasons.

According to the United States Catholic Directory, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has over 350,000 children under its care. The Santa Barbara Franciscans continue to serve in schools and parishes in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. An integral part of every priest’s duties is to educate young people “in the faith.” They are also part of the largest private educational organization in Los Angeles County (and, for that matter, the entire country).

Given the facts at issue, courts must balance privacy rights in favor of the past and future protection of children. Certainly, the courts should zealously guard the right to privacy. However, the result of permitting individuals and institutions to hide documents that establish institutional support for pedophilia equates to a judicial sanction of what one English playwright would have called “evil most foul.” California courts should follow Judge Lichtman’s lead in protecting children. A clear message needs to be sent that courts and law enforcement will no longer protect institutions, no matter how powerful, that, as a matter of policy, expose innocent children to child molesters. Any other conclusion by this state’s courts will have the net effect of supporting the concealment of child molesters and their protectors.

The Franciscans will likely appeal Judge Lichtman’s ruling on purely legal grounds. They will assert arguments involving the need for the “Legislature to address this issue” alongside other sophistries crafted by high-powered legal talent. However, in the final analysis, the courts must decide where their priorities lie. The right to privacy cannot trump the rights of children to be free from predators who would steal innocence and take their souls. It is apparent that Judge Lichtman recognized this truth. Hopefully, the rest of the judiciary will be enlightened by his insight.