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2 Lawyers Break Ranks, File New Suits Alleging Sex Abuse by Priests

The action, spurred by the church's alleged stonewalling, ends an agreement with other attorneys to first try for a joint settlement.

June 04, 2003|Jean Guccione and William Lobdell | Times Staff Writers

Two lawyers for alleged victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests broke ranks Tuesday and filed 10 lawsuits against the dioceses of Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego, saying they are tired of waiting for church officials to produce personnel files on the accused.

The cases ends a 5-month-old agreement among lawyers to try to mediate a massive settlement before any more civil lawsuits were filed. The action also represents a strategic split among the half a dozen key lawyers for as many as 400 alleged victims in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

John Manly, the lawyer who filed the suits, accused church officials of stonewalling.

"They are not giving me anything except things I could have gotten out of public records," such as assignments for a few accused priests, he said.

Without filing the suits, Manly said, he would not be in a position to ask the dioceses to provide him with all of the information he is seeking.

The new cases, however, do not rule out a mediated settlement. Manly said he is pleased with Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Peter Lichtman's efforts to bring the parties together for mediation. But he said he also wants to be ready to litigate those claims if talks break down.

Attorney Venus Soltan, an associate of Manly, said they would never have agreed to delay the filing of lawsuits to enter mediation if she had known that lawyers for the Los Angeles Archdiocese would not voluntarily turn over personnel files belonging to its priests.

But J. Michael Hennigan, an attorney for the archdiocese, said a judge must decide what confidential files will be surrendered to lawyers for the alleged victims.

"We've actually provided all the documents that we are allowed to under the law," he said.

Hennigan and several lawyers for other plaintiffs blamed Soltan and Manly for the current delays.

Soltan and Manly asked Chief Justice of California Ronald M. George to assign all cases against the Los Angeles and Orange dioceses to one judge -- a process in the works since January.

Tuesday's filing are "just another thing that gets us off track," said attorney Katherine K. Freberg, who represents 97 people suing the Los Angeles Archdiocese and the Diocese of Orange. "It's always been my opinion that victims gain strength working together."

Raymond P. Boucher, the lawyer for more than 220 alleged victims, said the new filings may delay justice. He added that all the cases will be filed in court, but not until a procedure is established for processing them.

In March, all the priest sexual abuse cases in Los Angeles and Orange counties were ordered to be funneled into a single Los Angeles courtroom. Last week, the same judge, Elihu Berle, ordered similar cases in the dioceses of San Diego and San Bernardino to be added to the mix.

Once a judge is appointed, one of the first issues that must be resolved is whether plaintiffs' lawyers may review personnel records of accused priests. Lawyers for the Los Angeles Archdiocese have argued that any communications between bishops and priests -- sought by criminal prosecutors and plaintiffs' lawyers -- are privileged and that their surrender would violate the 1st Amendment.

A retired judge, Thomas Nuss, is considering whether the archdiocese must provide the same records to county prosecutors.

The suits filed Tuesday allege misconduct by seven priests.

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