Files Hold Special Meaning to Alleged Victims
By Gillian Flaccus
Los Angeles, CA - While money has dominated discussion of Roman Catholic molestation cases, recent legal struggles over the release of confidential clergy files highlight another tension: the privacy rights of accused priests versus victims' need to heal by sharing their pain.
The day before a Northern California jury awarded two brothers nearly $2 million for alleged sexual molestation by a priest, the state Supreme Court quietly blocked the release of documents detailing the sexual histories of dozens of Los Angeles priests. Also Tuesday, accused priests in Orange County announced they would fight their diocese's agreement to allow the public release of their private files.
Both developments were a blow for plaintiffs, who fought for the release of their alleged abusers' personnel files, saying the exposure would validate their stories, help bring closure and prevent future abuse.
Attorneys for the priests say the disclosure would throw open the kinds of documents widely accepted as private: medical and psychological records, attorney-client communications and employment records.
"What we're talking about are pretty fundamental privacy rights," said Donald Steier, attorney for 26 of the 117 Los Angeles priests.
For plaintiffs such as Steven Sanchez, that argument ignores the psychological damage done to the nearly 1,000 people who filed lawsuits under a 2002 state law.
Sanchez is one of scores of plaintiffs who refused to discuss any settlement without a promise that parts of secret church files be made public.
"It's part of my closure. My whole parish is talking about the Sanchez brothers and how they're making this whole thing up," said Sanchez, a financial adviser from Glendale whose brother also claimed a priest molested him during the 1970s. "Money isn't going to make this go away."
David Rhomberg says his case is evidence that filing a lawsuit can help create awareness - though it isn't enough to achieve personal healing.
Rhomberg, 41, wrote a letter to the Diocese of Orange in 2002 telling the church of his alleged abuse by the Rev. Santino Casimano in the 1970s. He didn't plan to file a lawsuit until his attorney told him a year later that Casimano had taken a job as principal of a Catholic high school near Norwich, Conn.
Within a month of Rhomberg's lawsuit, Casimano left his post. Casimano, who said in news accounts at the time that he was innocent, could not be reached for comment.
"Even today, there are people who are still in denial ... and until these files are made public there's a lot of people who are disbelieving," said Rhomberg.
"They think it's people who are going after money and for the majority of us, I know that's not the case. It's healing when we're not made to feel like we're crazy."
Such determination is troublesome for the church, which typically has offered confidential settlements to victims. In the few instances where private church documents were revealed at trial, California juries have awarded anywhere from nearly $500,000 to $30 million.
Sanchez and other plaintiffs who filed the 554 molestation claims against the Los Angeles archdiocese refused to enter mediation talks unless the church agreed to release at least summaries of what the church knew about each priest, when it knew it and what action - if any - the church took.
The archdiocese agreed to post the summaries on its Web site.
Yet Steier, the private attorney for the priests, successfully kept the papers from the public when the California Supreme Court on Tuesday sent the case back to a state appeals court for review. His winning argument: posting the summaries on the Web would violate the priests' privacy and the confidential nature of court-ordered mediation.
In Orange County, a key part of December's record-breaking $100 million settlement between the diocese and 94 plaintiffs was the church's eventual promise not to oppose the release of the full personnel files.
That release had been scheduled for next month, but on Tuesday eight accused priests and lay personnel said they would fight release of their confidential information. A state court hearing is scheduled for late May.
The dioceses reinstated one of the priests, the Rev. Richard Delahunty, last year after a church panel found no evidence of molestation. His attorney, Vincent Thorpe, called the release order overly broad and invasive because the file could contain complaints against Delahunty unrelated to sexual abuse.
For many alleged victims, however, the documents are the only way to protect potential future victims - and to heal themselves.
Joelle Casteix says her alleged abuser, Thomas Hodgman, raped and impregnated her when he was choir director and she was a student at Mater Dei High School, a Catholic school supervised by the diocese. She says she had an abortion.
Hodgman, now a professor at Adrian College in Michigan, is fighting to keep his records private. Casteix hopes the college, which has backed Hodgman, will change its mind if his file comes out. He has repeatedly stated his innocence to local media but did not respond to e-mails or phone calls from The Associated Press.
"For so many years, I was called a liar, I was told I just wanted attention, I was told that I was promiscuous," she said. "I just want to be able to hold up this big, thick file and say, 'You know, I was right all along."'
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