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Delay in releasing clergy files

Judge recuses himself from reviewing L.A. sex-abuse documents.

September 05, 2008|Duke Helfand and Victoria Kim | Times Staff Writers

A year-old legal agreement requiring the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles to release confidential personnel records of priests accused of sexual abuse has been thrown into limbo by the departure of a retired judge selected to vet the documents.

Former state Supreme Court Justice Edward A. Panelli recused himself in June to avoid the "appearance of impropriety" because he is chairman of a board that reviews clergy abuse charges in San Jose.

Panelli had been chosen by consensus in the Los Angeles case to decide which confidential documents should be opened to plaintiffs and the public. His rulings would have been final.

On Thursday, plaintiffs' attorneys asked Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Emilie Elias to appoint a replacement for Panelli, even as they accused Cardinal Roger Mahony and other archdiocese officials of manipulating the retired jurist's departure to delay the release of embarrassing and potentially incriminating information -- a charge church officials adamantly deny.

"If they try to be as recalcitrant as they have been in previous years, we'll have a huge fight," said plaintiffs' attorney Anthony DeMarco.

Archdiocese officials said that they were not involved in Panelli's decision and had been waiting for the plaintiffs to formally request a replacement jurist.

"We're open to a process that would allow plaintiffs to seek the documents," said Tod Tamberg, an archdiocese spokesman. "We're hopeful that there is a retired judge somewhere in our state of repute to both sides, and that a process could be agreed upon to move forward."

Panelli said he recused himself as soon as he was notified that he had been appointed to handle the Los Angeles case. He has been on the San Jose board about three years. He said he had not spoken with attorneys on either side before he made his decision.

"Even if there isn't any basis for a bias or prejudice, if there is an appearance of impropriety, you should not participate," he said.

Panelli said reports that he recused himself because of an honor he received from the Catholic Church were inaccurate. Although he and his wife did receive papal awards last year for service to the community, he did not cite the award as a reason for his recusal. In hindsight, Panelli said Thursday, it would have been appropriate to mention the award as well.

"The bottom line," he said, "is I did not feel comfortable sitting in that role based on the fact that I sit on this [San Jose] board. And as a judge, if you don't feel comfortable, you don't decide on that matter."

The conflict over disclosure is the latest chapter in a yearslong legal battle the archdiocese had hoped to close last year when it agreed to a record $660-million settlement.

The money has since been disbursed to abuse victims, but plaintiffs want something they say is worth even more: public access to the confidential files of accused priests.

They want to know how Mahony and other church officials handled molestation complaints against priests, and whether the archdiocese will bear any criminal responsibility for their actions.

The cardinal has released summaries of those cases, but the full accounts remain in the archdiocese's confidential files. Mahony fought in court to keep the records from a county grand jury, finally losing before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Plaintiffs' demands that the church release the personnel records of priests were a major stumbling block during prolonged settlement negotiations.

Mahony has acknowledged leaving 16 priests in the ministry after parishioners complained about their behavior with children.

Five of the priests went on to molest children. One priest was Michael Baker, who was criminally charged with molestation after confiding to Mahony in 1986 that he had abused two boys.

A spokeswoman for Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said a criminal investigation into the clergy sex scandal remains open.

Attorneys representing abuse victims said releasing the confidential files would thwart future trouble.

"Disclosure of the personnel files of child molesting clergy in these cases . . . is the best way for the community to understand how the tragedy of this epidemic of abuse could have occurred, and most importantly, how going forward it can be prevented," the plaintiffs' attorneys wrote in their application Thursday to have Panelli replaced.

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duke.helfand@latimes.com

victoria.kim@latimes.com

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