Judge says Times can argue for release of full church abuse files
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Media organizations will be allowed to argue against redactions in secret church files that are due to be made public as part of a historic $660-million settlement between the Los Angeles Archdiocese and alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled Thursday.
Pursuant to Judge Emile Elias’ order, The Times and the Associated Press will be allowed to intervene in the case, in which attorneys are gearing up for the release of internal church personnel documents more than five years after the July 2007 settlement. The judge’s ruling came after attorneys for the church and the plaintiffs agreed to the news organizations’ involvement in the case.
The Times and the AP object to a portion of a 2011 decision by a retired judge overseeing the file release process. Judge Dickran Tevrizian had ruled that all names of church employees, including Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and other top archdiocese officials, should be blacked out in the documents before they were made public. In a hearing, Tevrizian said he did not believe the documents should be used to ‘embarrass or to ridicule the Church.’
Attorneys for the news organizations argued in court filings that the redactions would “deny the public information that is necessary to fully understand the Church’s knowledge about the serial molestation of children by priests over a period of decades.” The personnel files of priests accused of molestation, which a church attorney has said were five or six banker’s boxes of documents, could include internal memos about abuse claims, Vatican correspondence and psychiatric reports.
Contending that the secrecy was motivated by “a desire to avoid further embarrassment” for the church rather than privacy concerns, the media attorneys wrote: “That kind of self-interest is not even remotely the kind of ‘overriding interest’ that is needed to overcome the public’s presumptive right of access, nor does it establish ‘good cause’ for ongoing secrecy.”
An archdiocese attorney said Thursday that the church had spent a “great deal of effort” in redacting the files to comply with Tevrizian’s order, and said the media attorneys misunderstand the legal process that both parties in the settlement agreed would be binding.
“We agree with Judge Tevrizian that enough time has passed and enough reforms have been made that it’s time to get off this and move onto another subject,” attorney J. Michael Hennigan said.
An attorney representing the victims also filed papers Thursday arguing that the church was “too broadly construing” Tevrizian’s redaction orders, and asking Elias to release the files with church officials’ names unredacted.
“Each of the higher-ups in the Los Angeles Archdiocese who recklessly endangered generations of this community’s children by protecting pedophile priests will themselves be protected,” wrote Ray Boucher, lead attorney for the plaintiffs.
A hearing on the release of church documents is set for Jan. 7. At the hearing, Elias will also hear objections from an attorney representing individual priests, who contend that their constitutional privacy rights will be violated if the files are made public. In a court filing this month, the priests’ attorney, Donald Steier, said Tevrizian was “dead wrong” to rule that the documents can be disclosed because the public interest outweighs the clerics’ rights.
“Under California law, it is the employees who own the information in the files, and the Archdiocese is merely the custodian who has a legal duty to defend the contents of the files and has no legal right to agree to disclose them,” Steier wrote.