Dem Reality Check: As San Francisco DA, Kamala Harris’s Office Stopped Assisting Victims Of Catholic Church Clergy Sex Abuse

“It was just a flat-out insult.”

By Lee Fang
The Intercept (6/9/19)

KAMALA HARRIS, SURROUNDED by thousands of cheering supporters, kicked off her presidential campaign in Oakland earlier this year, declaring that she has always fought “on behalf of survivors of sexual assault, a fight not just against predators but a fight against silence and stigma.”

Fighting on behalf of victims of sexual abuse, particularly children, has been central to Harris’s political identity for the better part of three decades. Harris specialized in prosecuting sex crimes and child exploitation as a young prosecutor just out of law school. She later touted her record on child sexual abuse cases and prosecuting pedophiles in television advertisementssplashy profiles, and on the trail as she campaigned for public office.

But when it came to taking on the Catholic Church, survivors of clergy sexual abuse say that Harris turned a blind eye, refusing to take action against clergy members accused of sexually abusing children when it meant confronting one of the city’s most powerful political institutions.

“Victims come forward because they are afraid that the person who hurt them is still out there, hurting other kids, or someone from the diocese is still lying about it. I haven’t met a single survivor who’s said, ‘Boy, am I glad they kept the documents for my case secret.’”

When Harris became San Francisco district attorney in 2004, she took over an office that had been working closely with survivors of sexual abuse to pursue cases against the Catholic Church. The office and the survivors were in the middle of a legal battle to hold predatory priests accountable, and Harris inherited a collection of personnel files involving allegations of sexual abuse by priests and employees of the San Francisco Archdiocese, which oversees church operations in San Francisco, and Marin and San Mateo counties.

The files had been compiled by investigators working under the direction of Terence Hallinan, the radical district attorney who Harris ousted in a contentious election campaign. Hallinan’s team had prosecuted cases of abuse that had occurred decades earlier and had gathered evidence as part of a probe into widespread clergy sexual misconduct.

Just six months before Harris took office, a U.S. Supreme Court decision overturned a California law that had retroactively eliminated the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution of child molestation cases. That shifted the focus to holding predators among the clergy accountable through civil cases and through a broader effort to bring attention to predators who had been shielded by the church.

Hallinan believed that the clergy abuse files were a matter of public record; Harris refused to release them to the public.

No help for survivors of clergy abuse

In her seven years as district attorney, Harris’s office did not proactively assist in civil cases against clergy sex abuse and ignored requests by activists and survivors to access the cache of investigative files that could have helped them secure justice, according to several victims of clergy sex abuse living in California who spoke to The Intercept.

“It went from Terence Hallinan going hundred miles an hour, full speed ahead, after the Catholic Church to Kamala Harris doing absolutely nothing and taking it backwards hundred miles an hour,” said Joey Piscitelli, a sexual assault survivor, who a jury found had been molested as a student while attending Salesian College Preparatory, a Catholic high school in Richmond, California.

Piscitelli had met with Hallinan’s office to discuss his case and the ongoing investigation into the church. But, he said, when Harris took over, his access to the office was shut off and his requests for clergy abuse files were ignored. …

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