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Judge overseeing L.A. priest abuse cases favors release of priests' personnel files

The judge is considering releasing redacted files for priests who are deceased, criminally convicted or who admitted to abuse in civil court.

March 11, 2011|By Victoria Kim and Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times
  • Retired Judge Dickran Tevrizian oversees clergy abuse cases.
Retired Judge Dickran Tevrizian oversees clergy abuse cases. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles…)

A retired federal judge overseeing clergy sexual abuse cases involving the Archdiocese of Los Angeles said Thursday he was inclined to publicly release most priests' personnel files, but said the names of church officials who dealt with the claims of abuse should be kept from disclosure.

"I've tried to balance the interests of everybody," Judge Dickran Tevrizian told a phalanx of attorneys during a hearing at a private mediation firm in downtown Los Angeles. "I don't want to have what is considered to be collateral damage to anyone other than the accused priests or former priests."

Tevrizian's tentative ruling was the first public glimpse into a key, unfulfilled portion of the landmark 2007 settlement between the archdiocese and hundreds of plaintiffs who said they were victims of childhood sexual abuse by priests. In addition to a $660-million payout, the archdiocese agreed to a process for the church's files on the accused priests to be vetted for potential release to the public. The process, which plaintiffs contend is critical for preventing future abuse and holding the church hierarchy accountable, has been occurring largely out of public view with no set deadlines.

The judge said he was considering an arrangement in which the personnel files for priests who were deceased, criminally convicted or had admitted to abuse in civil court would be released, but that the names of witnesses, victims, church employees and medical and mental health professionals would be redacted. He said the names of priests who faced only a single unsubstantiated allegation of abuse would be withheld even though their files would be released.

Plaintiffs' attorneys argued that church officials who allowed abusive priests to remain in the ministry or transferred them from parish to parish should be held publicly accountable for their actions. Many of those officials still remain in positions of authority and trust, they said.

"These files and records are replete with evidence to suggest that the church, the members of the hierarchy, vicars and clergy aided and abetted and co-conspired with these priests to allow for the statute of limitations to run," plaintiff's attorney Raymond Boucher told the judge.

Tevrizian, however, said the public could easily deduce from when and where the alleged abuse occurred which church officials were ultimately responsible. He said the case had long been settled, and that the document release process should not be used to "embarrass or to ridicule the church."

"You could figure out who had the authority," he said. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to put it together."

The judge said he found reforms already made by the church in its dealing with abuse cases "very persuasive" in reaching his decision.

J. Michael Hennigan, the church's attorney, said he thought the judge's ruling was fair and noted that the church of its own accord had already released a list of priests accused of sexual abuse in 2004, including those who faced allegations that weren't substantiated. He said the church was eager to move past the litigation, and said after the hearing that he hoped the process would be concluded in a couple of months.

Tevrizian said he would issue a written ruling in 45 days, after which individual priests will be able to raise objections to the release of documents they believe are privileged.

Attorney Donald Steier, who represents 31 of the priests, told the judge his clients were never part of the settlement, and that their constitutional rights would be violated if the church turned over their personnel files. Regardless of what they have been accused of doing, the priests should be afforded the same legal protections, he argued.

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