Freeze on Priest Abuse Cases Lifted
The Decision, after a 3-Year Delay, Allows Lawyers to Begin Pretrial Investigations of More Than 100 Claims against 32 Catholic Clerics
By John Spano
Los Angeles Times [Los Angeles CA]
November 18, 2006
More than 100 lawsuits filed by people who say they were sexually molested by Roman Catholic priests were jump-started this week after a three-year legal hiatus.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Haley J. Fromholz released the claims for trial after a freeze that had stalled discovery and other pretrial investigation. The freeze was imposed as lawyers for victims and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles spent years trying to resolve more than 570 claims covering 60 years without trials.
The decision involves 32 priests and only about 20% of the claims arising from the church scandal, but it could be a sign that litigation is beginning to move ahead. Katherine K. Freberg, an Irvine lawyer who represents 41 people who say they are victims, said she sent demands for documents to the church Thursday.
Thirty-three claims have already been settled by religious orders rather than by the archdiocese, and 46 others are near settlement, according to lawyers involved.
"Some of these cases will be thrown out of court. Some will be settled. Some will go to trial," one lawyer familiar with the litigation said of the cases cleared for trial this week.
"There is only one thing that gets these cases settled: It's having trial dates and full-blown discovery," said M. Ryan DiMaria, a lawyer for several victims. "Therefore this is hugely important."
Without discovery — subpoenaed production of records, depositions and written documents — "there's no pressure on the defendants to do anything," DiMaria said.
"We anticipate that the defendants will fight us on virtually every issue. But at least we get to start," DiMaria said.
At the heart of the litigation is the claim that the church failed to protect its parishioners from pedophile priests and instead acted to shield the priests from civil and criminal liability.
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony has acknowledged that in the past, problem priests were sent to therapy and then transferred rather than reported to authorities and parishioners. The Catholic Church has since declared a zero tolerance policy on sexual misconduct by priests.
Also this week, a lawyer representing priests won a courthouse victory, persuading Fromholz to bar accusers' access to psychiatric information in church personnel files. The judge found that the documents, generally written communications between the church and healthcare providers, are confidential. State law prohibits the disclosure of medical treatment for mental and emotional illness without the consent of the patient.
The ruling was made in the case of Lynn Caffoe, who was suspended from the priesthood after sexual abuse claims were filed against him in 1991. Donald H. Steier, who represents Caffoe and many other priests, succeeded in arguing that the medical records should not be surrendered to attorneys for the victims.
Decisions on Caffoe's files will influence how other accused priests' records are treated and the extent to which the victims can develop their legal claims. The archdiocese, citing the church's constitutional rights and other privileges, had long fought to keep its files from attorneys for victims and prosecutors.
The U.S. Supreme Court in April ordered Mahony to turn over the documents to a county grand jury, and a trial judge ruled they must go to the Caffoe plaintiffs.
Mahony earlier had disclosed summaries of Caffoe's personnel file showing that complaints of misconduct were lodged against him in 1986 and 1989. In 1991, the priest's therapist reported his suspicion of child abuse to law enforcement, according to a church summary of the file. Police opened an investigation, and Mahony suspended Caffoe shortly thereafter.
Freberg said 20 documents in the Caffoe file were ruled confidential this week.
"We have been able to get these psychiatric evaluations in other cases. These are the smoking guns," said Freberg. "When there are multiple allegations, it's only then that they send the priest for a psychiatric evaluation, and only then they give a full history of what they've known about the priest."
Asked about repeated reports that the parties are close to settlement of the first 46 cases that involve the archdiocese, DiMaria said, "We've been getting close for three years."
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