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Church Told to Release Files on Priests

August 07, 2004|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

In what lawyers suing the Roman Catholic Church over sexual abuse allegations claim is a major victory, a judge Friday ordered Northern California bishops to turn over personnel files on 40 priests accused of molesting children.

Similar church files are being sought by prosecutors and lawyers for more than 500 people who say they were sexually abused by priests in the Los Angeles area. The documents could shed light on how the church responded to abuse allegations.

Friday's ruling by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ronald M. Sabraw does not directly affect the cases in Southern California, but the decision made him the first judge in the state to publicly reject the church's argument that personnel files of priests are protected by special legal privileges. It sets the framework for the exchange of evidence in 150 civil suits pending against eight Roman Catholic dioceses north of Santa Barbara County.

At a hearing Friday, Sabraw ordered diocesan officials to turn over the files to plaintiffs' lawyers by Sept. 10. The files will not become public immediately.

In his 16-page ruling, the judge rejected the church's claims that release of the documents would violate either the church's constitutional rights or the long-standing legal protections that shield discussions between a priest and a person making confession.

"The clergy-penitent privilege and the 1st Amendment right to freedom of religion are not implicated by the disclosure of information in the personnel files and similar documents concerning clergy," the judge wrote.

Sabraw also ruled that a priest's right to privacy is outweighed by the relevance of personnel documents gathered during the period of alleged abuse.

Laurence Drivon, a Stockton lawyer who represents 450 people suing the church over alleged childhood sexual abuse in California, said he believed the church was dragging its feet with "legal theories that the courts are throwing out one after another."

Under Sabraw's ruling, "the room for playing games has been substantially reduced," Drivon said.

But Stephen A. McFeely, who represents the Diocese of Oakland, said Sabraw's ruling is "not earth-shattering."

"We are not going to be turning over privileged documents," he said, referring to those papers the judge might still decide should remain confidential.

Sabraw ruled, for instance, that the church may withhold communications with a "psychotherapist," as defined by state law, hired to evaluate or treat a priest, unless such communications served as a warning that the priest was likely to abuse children in the future.

The Southern California cases are tied up in closed-door settlement talks that began in January 2003. As part of that mediation, church lawyers in Los Angeles are now releasing information about the confidential personnel files of more than 100 accused priests to lawyers representing alleged victims.

None of the information has been made public.

At the same time, lawyers for Cardinal Roger M. Mahony are fighting the release of more than 700 pages of documents subpoenaed by a grand jury concerning two priests. Retired Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Thomas Nuss is expected to rule soon on the constitutional and other legal issues being raised by Mahony's legal team.

Mahony's lawyers have raised objections similar to those that Sabraw struck down Friday.

But J. Michael Hennigan, one of the lawyers for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, on Friday criticized the legal approach taken by the Northern California dioceses.

The arguments made on behalf of the church in Sabraw's court "seemed to be very confusing," he said. "Their approach was considerably different from ours."

Lawyers for the church had argued to Sabraw that documents involving laicization -- the formal process for removing a priest from the priesthood -- should be protected from release. Mahony's lawyers have made a parallel argument, asserting a "formation privilege" that would shield documents that involve a bishop's spiritual guidance offered to priests during their careers.

In rejecting the argument involving laicization, Sabraw turned to the church's own canon law for guidance. Citing the canons, he said the church had "not demonstrated that the disclosure of information related to the formation or laicization of priests will interfere with any religious practice."

Sabraw ruled that a priest can assert a constitutional right to privacy on some statements the priest might have made regarding "confidential theological or spiritual beliefs."

As an example, the court said, "the sincerity of a person's religious calling to work with children is private, but his or her participation in youth activities is not private."

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