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Abusive priests' personnel files remain under wraps

The L.A. Archdiocese agreed to release them as part of its $660-million settlement three years ago. But each one needs to be reviewed first, a slow process.

May 03, 2010|By Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times

Three years after Los Angeles Archdiocese agreed to the largest priest abuse settlement in U.S. history, a key element of that agreement — public release of accused priests' personnel files — remains unfulfilled with no clear outlook on when the documents may be disclosed.

For many who believed that church authorities had ignored or downplayed their accounts of abuse, release of the documents rivaled monetary compensation as the central part of the $660-million settlement agreement in 2007.

"People want to be believed, they want their truths to be known and validated," said Carlos Perez-Carrillo, 44, who said he was molested by a consecrated brother who later became a priest.

But Perez-Carrillo and the hundreds of others who sued have little ability to speed the process, and the other parties to the case have conflicting priorities. There is little financial incentive for attorneys to move the process forward; most plaintiffs' attorneys received their compensation shortly after the settlement. In Los Angeles, the throng of plaintiffs' attorneys once involved in the cases has been reduced to just one still working on the release of the files at the moment.

The process is being overseen by a retired judge and is occurring largely outside public view. There are no deadlines. The lawyer who represents priests accused of abuse has insisted all along that any document involving their personnel records is shielded by state and federal privacy laws and has fought release at each step. And the archdiocese has shown little interest in speeding the process.

"It's long, tedious job with lots of meticulous tasks," said J. Michael Hennigan, an attorney representing the archdiocese. "We move forward as fast as we move forward."

Meanwhile, those who say they've been abused complain that the delay is preventing healing and perpetuating a system that for decades protected molesters and left children vulnerable.

Elsewhere in the country, the release of closely guarded files of accused priests has led to damaging revelations of how church officials protected abusers and left children vulnerable.

In Boston, where the scandal of sexual abuse by priests first erupted in 2002, documents filed under seal in court and later made public showed the archdiocese knew about child molestation allegations against priests but did little more than transfer them from parish to parish. Information about Cardinal Bernard Law's active role in covering up allegations of abuse led to outcry and his eventual resignation.

In Orange County, where the files of 15 accused abusers were released five months after cases were settled in late 2004, records revealed that church officials dumped one serial molester in Tijuana, welcomed a convicted child abuser from another state into their diocese and offered a repeat abuser up to $19,000 to leave the priesthood quietly. The judge overseeing the release there said he was "powerless" to order the release of records of eight other priests and teachers who objected to public release of their personnel files.

In Los Angeles, with more than 500 plaintiffs and hundreds of priests accused of abuse, the documents would provide a picture of how the largest archdiocese in the country dealt with decades of abuse allegations.

"The revelations will be profound, gut-wrenching," said Ray Boucher, the lead plaintiff's attorney, who has argued that the public's interest in the release of documents outweighs the privacy rights of priests. "Through the process, the public will gain awareness that will help make society more safe," he said.

The release of the priests' personnel files was the subject of a long and contentious legal wrangling before the settlement. The archdiocese resisted turning over files to criminal prosecutors or plaintiffs' attorneys, citing confidentiality between bishop and priests and 1st Amendment privileges.

In the settlement reached in 2007, the parties agreed to "immediately work cooperatively … to expedite review of the personnel files of the accused offenders" so that a referee appointed to oversee the process can rule on which files should be released "in a reasonably short period of time."

The process was dealt a setback in 2008 when retired justice Edward Panelli, who was to review the documents and make final, binding rulings on whether the records could be made public, recused himself before doing any work on the files. Attorneys said the newly appointed referee, retired District Court Judge Dickran Tevrizian, has started with the files of deceased priests for which there are no privacy rights asserted.

"We've been going through the documents doing what we are legally required to do, redacting names of innocent people not involved in the process," said Hennigan, the archdiocese attorney. "Every page has to be read. Every time there's an innocent person named there, somebody has to redact it."

Attorneys said they did not know how long the process would take.

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