The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles. (Los Angeles Times )
After five years of legal wrangling, confidential personnel files of at least 69 priests accused of sexually abusing children in the Los Angeles Archdiocese could be ordered released as early as January, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge said Monday.
Judge Emilie H. Elias set a hearing for Jan. 7 to hear objections to the release of what a church attorney said were five or six banker's boxes of files relating to the archdiocese's handling of child molestation claims, which could include internal memos, Vatican correspondence and psychiatric reports.
The public release of the files was agreed to as part of a record $660-million settlement reached in 2007 between the archdiocese and 562 people who alleged that they were molested as children by clergy members. The process, overseen by a retired judge, was beset by delays and faced objections from an attorney representing at least 30 of the priests, who contends that his clients' constitutional rights to privacy are at stake.
The retired judge, Dickran Tevrizian, also ordered that all names of church leaders, including Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, who retired as archbishop last year, be blacked out in the files, saying the information should not be used to embarrass the archdiocese. Attorneys for The Times on Friday filed a motion opposing the redaction of church officials' names, contending that the public has a right to know who in the hierarchy knew of molestation allegations and what they did about it.
"Without this information," lawyers for the newspaper wrote, " the public will not be able to assess the extent of institutional or individual knowledge of the abuse."
At a hearing Monday, an attorney representing abuse victims accused the church of going beyond the judge's rulings in their redactions and withholding of files. "The archdiocese is trying to drive a truck through the exceptions Judge Tevrizian is setting," attorney Ray Boucher told Elias.
Church attorney J. Michael Hennigan said his staff complied with Tevrizian's order "literally and expansively." He said that he wanted a "very short fuse" on the process of individual priests' objections to the files and that the archdiocese is eager to complete the document release, possibly by mid-January.
Elias ordered church attorneys to submit to her for review both the redacted and unredacted versions of the documents.
Donald Steier, an attorney for the priests, said he would file legal papers by late December objecting to the files being made public. At the hearing, Steier accused archdiocese officials of failing to defend the priests' rights.
"They have a duty to help protect those files, and they've already breached that," he said.