Clergy File Redactions: Protective or Deceptive?
By Elizabeth Hardin-Burrola
December 10, 2013
GALLUP – When the Rev. Carlos R. Rodriguez, a Vincentian priest from California, sexually molested a teenage boy in a Flagstaff motel room in 1987, his religious superior aided Rodriguez’s hasty exit out of the state.
More than 25 years later, that Vincentian provincial’s identity was known only to a few people. Like most information in clergy abuse personnel files, it was sealed up in confidential church archives.
And if that religious superior had any ties to the Diocese of Gallup, no one here — particularly Catholics in the pews — would have any way to know that.
That began to change when a portion of Rodriguez’s file was released in January as part of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ 2007 settlement with clergy abuse survivors. However, the identity of Rodriguez’s Vincentian provincial was still protected by the redaction of his name in the file. All throughout the record, the word “REDACTED” was stamped where his name had been protectively removed.
However, since church officials were forced to release a file in September with fewer redactions, anyone who reads the Rodriguez file on the Internet can easily see what church official advised the priest to leave Los Angeles immediately, pick up money from another church official, hole up overnight in a hotel and then catch a plane to the East Coast for quick admittance into a Catholic treatment facility.
For at least Rodriguez’s file, the protective — and deceptive — redactions are gone.
And the Vincentian provincial who aided Rodriguez? It was the Rev. Jerome “Jerry” R. Herff — one of the founding members of the Gallup Diocesan Review Board on Juvenile Sexual Abuse. Ironically, in the years Herff worked in the Gallup Diocese, he worked on the western part of the Navajo Nation, in Coconino County, the same county where Rodriguez molested the teen. And more ironically, as the clergy representative on Gallup’s sex abuse review board, Herff was supposed to advise the Gallup bishop on how to properly deal with sex abuse allegations. How Herff advised Rodriguez to flee California in 1987 has brought Herff national notoriety since his redacted name was added back into Rodriguez’s file.
Herff, who left the Gallup Diocese and returned to California in 2011, did not respond to requests for comment for this article. However, in a letter about Rodriguez to Pope John Paul II in 1997, Herff admitted to “not knowing much about child abusers” a decade before.
Herff’s actions, as documented in Rodriguez’s file, along with the recently released file of Gallup priest James M. Burns, raise a number of questions about redactions in clergy abuse files. For one, just who are these redactions protecting?
Redactions are supposed to protect the names and identifying information of abuse victims. But the initial redactions in the Rodriguez file also protected church officials like Herff who put the interest of a sexual offender over the interests of an abuse victim, his parents and law enforcement.
So is anyone being protected in Burns’ very heavily redacted personnel file?
Terence McKiernan, the president of Bishop Accountability, the online archive that documents clergy abuse, said most of the priest files released in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles settlement feature redaction percentages in the five to 10 percent range. The Burns file is more than 35 percent redacted, he said, with 195 totally blacked-out pages and extensive redactions on many other pages.
In addition, McKiernan said, although the file features a page numbering system up to 564, nine pages are actually missing from that system that had to have been part of the original file.
California attorney Raymond P. Boucher, who negotiated the Burns file redactions with the Diocese of Gallup, said the redacted pages involve privileged attorney/client communication, documents related to Burns’ medical conditions, or Burns last will and testament. Any information related to sex abuse allegations are not redacted, he said.
However, there are many viewable pages that feature Burns’ medical and health information, from his medical allergies to his weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. And what are missing, however, are documents that a number of individuals across the diocese have said in media interviews that they remember mailing or submitting to the Gallup chancery about Burns.
“There really is no other file that is so aggressively redacted as this one,” McKiernan said of the Burns file’s 200-plus pages of missing information.
“Such extensive redactions are unique in the Los Angeles file release,” he said, “and it is a matter of serious concern whether the redactions are in keeping with the settlement agreement, and what information they conceal.”