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THE STATE

Records' Release Is Criticized

Critics dismiss as a PR ploy the disclosure by the L.A. Archdiocese of documents on priests.

October 13, 2005|Jean Guccione and Sandy Banks | Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles Archdiocese has promised for more than two years to make public 126 summaries culled from the personnel records of priests accused of molesting children. Late Tuesday, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony made good on his pledge, but already critics are questioning his motives.

Attorney J. Michael Hennigan, who represents the archdiocese in more than 560 sexual-abuse lawsuits, said the documents were released in connection with a recent court decision. A state appellate court ruled last month that it couldn't stop the archdiocese from making the information public.

"We did it as fast as we could," he said, adding that the "release has nothing to do with that settlement process."

But one attorney for 127 men and women suing the archdiocese suggested that the release may have had to do with looming trial dates that have been set after years of failed mediation.

"The writing is on the wall: We will be trying these cases," attorney Katherine K. Freberg said. She suspected that the archdiocese wanted to release damaging information now rather than risk it becoming public nearer the time of jury selection.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Haley J. Fromholz said last month that he intended to set nine cases for trial within nine months.

Hennigan said during a telephone news conference Wednesday that the archdiocese was still committed to trying to reach a global settlement that would prevent the need for individual trials. He again blamed the church's insurers for the delays in settlement.

Lawyers representing two major insurers declined to comment on closed-door negotiations. But in the past, settlement negotiations have hung up in part over how the financial responsibility would be divided among the archdiocese and its insurers.

Attorney Raymond P. Boucher, liaison counsel for the plaintiffs, said the church was serious about settling the cases as long as insurance companies bear some of the liability. "The archdiocese does not want to dig too deep in its own pockets" to pay as much as $1 billion to alleged victims, he said.

The Los Angeles Archdiocese could end up paying out more than any other diocese in the U.S. because of a state law that temporarily suspended the statute of limitations, allowing molestation victims to sue institutions that failed to protect them from known predators even if the abuse took place decades earlier.

In recent years, the Catholic Church has paid nearly $250 million to settle hundreds of sex-abuse claims in California, including $100 million late last year to 90 people who alleged they were abused in Orange County.

Lawyers for the church and plaintiffs said they hoped to resolve all cases within two years.

While Hennigan was speaking to reporters, leaders of a national victims' advocacy group, Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, gathered on a sidewalk in front of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles.

They denounced the documents' release as just another attempt to burnish the image of Mahony, who has been criticized by prosecutors and victims for trying to stonewall the investigation. Plaintiffs and their attorneys have long dismissed the documents, known as proffers, as incomplete and have pushed for the release of full personnel files for the accused priests.

The diocese manipulated the release "to give the appearance of Cardinal Mahony coming clean," said Mary Grant, western regional director of the victims' support group.

The documents -- summaries of what archdiocese officials contend they knew about a priest's problems, though with many names and details omitted -- will do nothing to further settlement talks between the diocese and victims, Grant said. "Victims won't agree to a settlement until the whole truth comes out."

Lawyers for alleged victims have pledged that they will not settle the cases without forcing the archdiocese to turn over copies of the actual documents contained in the priests' files. Hennigan reiterated Wednesday that the church will continue to fight the release of some documents that he said would violate the priests' privacy rights or interfere with the church's free exercise of religion.

In addition to the civil suits, two Catholic priests -- Michael Edwin Wempe and Stephen C. Hernandez -- are awaiting trial in Los Angeles County on criminal charges of molesting boys. Another priest, Fernando Lopez, was sentenced in April to six years in prison for sexually abusing three boys at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Koreatown from 2001 until last year.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said Mahony's disclosures appear to be "little more than a public-relations ploy." Cooley's office has been investigating the abuse allegations for more than three years.

"The real question is why the archdiocese refuses to turn over grand jury-subpoenaed personnel records to prosecutors," Cooley said. "Three years ago, I urged Cardinal Mahony to provide the fullest possible disclosure of evidence of sexual abuse by clergy. Despite two court rulings ordering disclosure, Cardinal Mahony continues to claim 'confidentiality privileges' that no court has recognized.

"What we're looking for is evidence and investigative leads, not institutional mea culpas."

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