“Perhaps the deepest and most troubling mystery of Kamala Harris’s tenure as a prosecutor centers on the disturbing issue of sexual abuse of children by priests,” writes Peter Schweizer in Profiles in Corruption. As a senator, Harris has been a loud critic of those who protect “predators” — a rich charge, given her woefully negligent record as district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California. As Schweizer notes, “During her decade-and-a-half tenure as a chief prosecutor, Harris would fail to prosecute a single case of priest abuse and her office would strangely hide vital records on abuses that had occurred despite the protests of victim groups.”
Should Kamala Harris be chosen as a vice presidential running mate, this issue will come up again, and she will have to explain her soft approach toward abuse in the Church.
Schweizer suggests that the primary reason for it was the large political debt she owed prominent Catholics in the Bay Area for helping her win the district attorney’s seat in San Francisco. Her predecessor and opponent in that race, Vincent Hallinan, had been aggressively pursuing abuse cases against the Church. His gathering of incriminating documents drove Catholics afraid of his investigation into Kamala Harris’s arms:
The records that Hallinan had in his possession touched on well-connected institutions at the heart of California’s power structure. St. Ignatius College Preparatory School, in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, counted California governor Jerry Brown and the powerful Getty family as alumni. The school faced enormous vulnerabilities because of abuse problems there. Based on documents later released by the Jesuits who ran St. Ignatius, in the nearly sixty-year span from 1923 to 1982, in forty-three of those years the school employed at least one priest on the faculty who was later accused of abuse.
Hallinan’s investigation threatened to bring dozens of additional cases to light.
The Catholic archdiocese in San Francisco had reason to be extremely nervous.
According to San Francisco election financial disclosures, high-dollar donations to Harris’s campaign began to roll in from those connected to the Catholic Church institutional hierarchy. Harris had no particular ties to the Catholic Church or Catholic organizations, but the money still came in large, unprecedented sums.
Harris got money from Church fixer Joseph Russoniello and the law firm Cooley Godward, where he served as partner. Russoniello would later serve on her advisory board. “Another law firm,” writes Schweizer, “Bingham McCutcheon, which handled legal matters for the archdiocese concerning Catholic Charities, donated $2,825, the maximum allowed.” Still another law firm, Arguedas, Cassman & Headley, which was representing a priest in an abuse case at the time, donated $4,550 to Harris. “The lawyer in the case, Cristina Arguedas, also served on Kamala Harris’s advisory council,” Schweizer writes.
Harris also got a gusher of money from Catholic board members of various organizations in the Bay Area and their family members totaling $50,950.
All this money paid off. Hallinan’s loss to Harris meant that the “fate of the investigation into Catholic priest abuse would dramatically change — and not for the better,” according to Schweizer. Where Hallinan sought to release abuse records, Harris acted to hide them: “Harris, who had been a sexual crimes prosecutor early in her career, moved in the opposite direction of Hallinan and worked to cover up the records.”
Harris claimed that her reason for hiding the records was protection of the victims — an excuse that victims’ groups quickly shot down.
“Victims’ groups wanted the documents released and Harris was stopping it. They were outraged by her actions. Far from protecting victims, they argued, the cover-up was actually protecting the abusers by keeping their alleged crimes secret,” Schweizer writes. “ ‘They’re full of s–t,’ said Joey Piscitelli, the northwest regional director of Survivor Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), the largest and most active victims’ group. ‘You can quote me on that. They’re not protecting the victims.’ ”
Harris’s victory over Hallinan had other implications. “Beyond the handling of these abuse records, Harris also had an abysmal record in prosecuting priest cases,” Schweizer argues:
She somehow served as San Francisco district attorney from 2004-2011, and then as California attorney general from 2011 to 2017, and never brought a single documented case forward against an abusive priest. It is an astonishing display of inaction, given the number of cases brought in other parts of the country. To put this lack of action in perspective, at least fifty other cities charged priests in sexual abuse cases during her tenure as San Francisco district attorney. San Francisco is conspicuous by its absence.
As a prominent woman of color for the Democrats, Kamala Harris is no doubt on the party’s short list for vice presidential running mates. But this part of her résumé may hurt her standing on that list. It would give Catholics one more reason to vote Republican.