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  Release of Church Records Fought
Five Priests and Three Teachers Accused of Abuse Want Personnel Files Kept Secret

By Chris Knap
Orange County Register
April 13, 2005

The dioceses of Orange and Los Angeles are now agreeing to release details from the files of Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse while some of the priests themselves are hiring lawyers to keep the documents secret.

Earlier this year, the Diocese of Orange paid $100 million to settle abuse claims by 94 plaintiffs, and Bishop Tod Brown agreed that the church would not oppose the release of their personnel files. That was a linchpin of the settlement agreement.

But in the past weeks, eight people accused of sexual abuse in Orange County have asked a judge to block the release of documents.

The eight include the Rev. Richard Delahunty, the only priest accused of abuse who is still in active ministry in Orange County; former priest Michael Harris, a popular high school principal accused of abuse by a dozen former students; and Thomas Hodgman, a music teacher accused of impregnating a student.

The diocese has apologized and paid money to all the victims. But the settlement was not a legal adjudication of guilt. Lawyers for the diocese have said they believed some cases were not well-founded.

The Delahunty case was one of those. A church panel that investigated the molestation claim found no evidence to support it. The diocese returned Delahunty to ministry last year.

"They are making terrible accusations against an innocent man," said Vincent Thorpe, Delahunty's attorney.

Thorpe said Delahunty doesn't seek to prevent the release of anything related to the charge of sex with a minor, but said other information could be embarrassing.

"Maybe somebody doesn't like how he says the rosary," Thorpe said. "Everybody has a right to keep their personnel records confidential."

The man who accused Delahunty of the abuse declined to comment Tuesday. Other victims were more vocal.

"The reality is you can assume the worst when someone fights so hard to keep documents secret," said Ryan DiMaria, who won a $5.2 million settlement against the Diocese of Orange in 2001 after alleging molestations by Harris.

DiMaria is now a lawyer with Manly & McGuire, which represents five other students who alleged they were molested by Harris. Harris has denied the allegations.

But court documents show that church psychologists examining Harris in 1994 diagnosed him as an ephebophile -- someone sexually attracted to young boys -- and added "our clinical team believes there is substance to the allegations." That document was made public just before the diocese settled the DiMaria case.

Harris, who resigned from the priesthood in 2001, now lives in San Diego County.

Joelle Casteix alleged in a lawsuit that she was repeatedly sexually abused and eventually impregnated by Hodgman at Mater Dei when she was 16. Hodgman now teaches in Michigan.

"If he's denying the charges but at the same time objecting to the release of documents, he's not telling the truth. I am making it my goal to make sure these documents come out," Casteix said.

The others who asked the judge to block release of their records were former Mater Dei counselor Bronesio Balsis, of Mission Viejo; former vice principal John Merino, of Santa Ana; and priests Richard Coughlin, John Ruhl and Daniel Murray.

Balsis declined to comment Tuesday. The others could not be reached for comment.

Coughlin and Ruhl were removed from ministry years ago. Murray is on administrative leave.

In Los Angeles on Tuesday, the archdiocese was preparing to release summaries of the personnel files of 126 priests accused of abuse when it was stopped by the California Supreme Court.

Twenty-six priests represented by Los Angeles attorney Don Steier now win the right to a show-cause hearing before a court of appeals.

Steier said the privacy rights of the priests are well- established and expressed surprise that the Diocese of Orange would not have protected its employees.

"I don't know what they are doing down there in Orange County but I would be surprised if those files are made public," Steier said.

Steier said the issue is the right to medical and employment record privacy.

"I have heard it said that these (priests) are despicable people and did horrible things ... but once you take away their rights it erodes your rights."

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests complained Tuesday that the material the archdiocese was planning to release had already been "sanitized" by Archbishop Roger Mahony.

"But now even this little truth that could have come out is being blocked," said Steven Sanchez, Los Angeles director of the abuse-survivors group.

A May 17 hearing has been set for the Orange County cases.

 
 

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