Files on Some Accused Priests May Remain Sealed
Judge Says He Can't Order Records Released Because He Lacks Jurisdiction over Settled Abuse Cases
By Jean Guccione
Los Angeles Times [California]
May 19, 2005
Alleged victims of pedophile priests celebrated when secret files showing Diocese of Orange officials had covered up for abusive priests were released Tuesday. But their triumph came at a cost.
Though Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Peter D. Lichtman allowed lawyers for accusers to open 15 files to the public, the judge had said he was "powerless" to order the release of information on eight accused priests and educators who objected to the diocese disclosing their secrets.
The ruling could mean that hotly contested files — including the ones Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles has been fighting to conceal for two years — will remain sealed forever unless alleged victims mount costly legal battles.
"It's a triumph for the predators and those who protect them," said Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., lawyer who specializes in clergy sex-abuse cases.
The Los Angeles accusers had been trying to negotiate an out-of-court settlement just like the Orange Diocese's record $100-million pact — one that would include money and full disclosure of church files, they said.
But after eight priests and educators objected that their privacy rights would be violated if the information got out, Lichtman said he couldn't order the release because he had no jurisdiction over the settled cases.
The only files made available were those on dead priests, or priests who didn't object. They included letters, notes and memos detailing how diocesan officials shuffled alleged predators from parish to parish and diocese to diocese, instead of removing them or reporting them to authorities.
Anderson, who represented clients in the Orange settlement, said alleged victims and their lawyers were "flimflammed" into believing they would get all the files when they entered into a court-approved settlement with the diocese in December.
With Lichtman's order, sex-abuse victims and their lawyers who are seeking priest files "are basically subject to the goodwill of the sexual predator," said Costa Mesa attorney John Manly, who represents alleged victims. "We don't feel real good about Michael Baker [one of the accused] cooperating on the release of his files."
The lawyer for Mahony, J. Michael Hennigan, said he doubted that Lichtman's ruling would affect the Los Angeles cases because both sides had already agreed to a different protocol for making church files public.
The archdiocese has prepared "summaries" of confidential priest personnel files for release to the public. Several priests, however, are trying to block that release in court.
Lawyers for alleged victims say the summaries are a stopgap measure, and like their counterparts in Orange, their ultimate goal is full disclosure.
"The victims want accountability, transparency and the full picture of what happened in the diocese," said Irvine attorney Katherine K. Freberg, who represents alleged victims throughout California. Many of them have been ostracized by other parishioners who believe their accusations are false, she added.
The ruling "completely changes the dynamics of the Los Angeles litigation and significantly decreases the chances of resolving the cases with L.A.," said Raymond P. Boucher, lead counsel for alleged victims in the Southern California cases.
In his 22-page ruling, Lichtman, who was appointed settlement judge for the Diocese of Orange cases, expressed frustration at his inability to order that the files be opened, and said he thought the public interest in protecting children from sexual abuse outweighed the privacy rights of those accused of being predators.
But the judge said there was nothing in California law that permitted the release of private information after a lawsuit was resolved. He urged the appellate court to review the issue.
Meanwhile, lawyers for alleged victims and the media were back in Lichtman's court Wednesday after hundreds of pages of sealed documents were mistakenly given to media outlets as part of the larger file release.
Lichtman denied an initial request by Boucher, who authorized the document release, to order the Los Angeles Times and other outlets to return the sealed documents. The judge set a hearing for Tuesday on whether such an order is appropriate.
Boucher's office inadvertently released the personnel files of two former Orange Diocese priests — Michael A. Harris and John Edward Ruhl — and a former parochial school choir director, Thomas M. Hodgman. Each of the men had objected to the release.