The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles allowed at least eight priests to remain in contact with children even after receiving complaints that the clerics had a sexual interest in minors, according to church documents produced in the lawsuits by hundreds of alleged sexual-abuse victims.
That is twice as many as the church had previously conceded.
The documents, which became public Tuesday, indicate that numerous children might have avoided harm if church leaders in the 1960s, '70s and '80s had reacted more vigorously to warnings about abusive priests. Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the archdiocese, said the documents would be posted at midnight Tuesday on the archdiocese website, www.la-archdiocese.org.
The documents offer the most unfiltered look yet at the way the archdiocese responded to child-molestation allegations involving its priests over the last half-century.
In one of the newly revealed cases, a parishioner in 1980 passed a rumor to archdiocese officials that a young boy was spending every weekend at Father Richard Henry's home. In the decade that followed, the church received additional reports about Henry, including two in 1988, one from a nun at Our Lady of the Rosary in Paramount who said that the priest was partial to boys, and the other from a layperson who said he "grabs little boys and hugs them."
Despite the reports, Henry was allowed to remain in his parish while undergoing therapy. Church leaders say they did not know that he continued to sexually abuse young boys. He wasn't removed from ministry until the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department launched an investigation in 1991 that ended with Henry pleading no contest to four counts of lewd conduct with a child.
Henry went to prison in 1993 and served three years, according to court documents. He was removed from the priesthood in 2003.
J. Michael Hennigan, the church's lead attorney in more than 560 sexual-abuse lawsuits against the archdiocese, said the newly released documents show that "since the middle 1980s, there was never a time when a priest was transferred without counseling after a credible complaint."
The documents "show men of good will and intelligence struggling" with how to handle sexual abuse, he said.
Church officials say their policies have evolved over time into a "zero-tolerance" stance that reflects changes in their thinking on how best to handle child molesters.
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, who took over the leadership of the nation's largest archdiocese in 1985, said that the church's current policy, adopted in 2002, provides that "no priest who had ever abused a minor -- no matter how long ago -- would be allowed to hold an assignment."
Seven accused priests remain in active ministry today, according to the archdiocese, with at least one abuse allegation against each of them. Church officials said accusations against the seven have not been substantiated. In all, at least 245 clergy members from the L.A. Archdiocese have been accused of molestation, according to the documents. Church officials had previously put the figure at 219.
While church officials believe their policy protects today's children against abuse, the alleged assaults on previous generations of children continue to pose an enormous financial risk to the archdiocese.
Last year, the Diocese of Orange settled 90 cases for $100 million. Parties to the current suits have estimated that suits against the Los Angeles Archdiocese, which involve alleged abuse by more than 200 priests, could cost $1 billion.
The newly released documents were prepared by church lawyers in connection with efforts to settle the pending cases. Known as proffers, they represent what the church would be prepared to concede in the settlement talks.
They are summaries of the church's personnel files with much information deleted, including names of parents or other parishioners who complained about the priests, victims' names, many details about the alleged conduct or about therapy that the priests may have undergone. They also do not include names of church officials who were warned about the priests but failed to notify authorities and parishioners about their suspicions.
Lawyers for the accused priests earlier this year, had blocked an attempt by the archdiocese to release the documents. But late last month, a state appellate court said the church could release the information. A lawyer for many of the accused priests said he continued to object. "Any disclosure from personnel files violates the employee's right of privacy and ignores the legal process," said attorney Donald Steier. The church's move to release the information was a "public relations decision," he said.