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Release of molester priest’s files ordered

Times Staff Writer

A Los Angeles judge Tuesday ordered the release of secret church files on a late Orange County priest convicted of molesting children, ruling the documents show that “priests with known sexual proclivities have been handed off from one location to another without regard to the potential harm” to children.

Superior Court Judge Peter D. Lichtman ordered the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to produce the records involving Siegfried Widera, a priest who was convicted of child molestation in Wisconsin in 1973, then sent to Orange County three years later.

As part of an August 2006 settlement in which the Milwaukee diocese agreed to pay eight California victims $13.3 million, the church agreed to produce records so “transparency, accountability and responsibility can and could be assessed with the hope of providing closure to the settling plaintiffs.”

But the diocese contended some records were privileged.

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Lichtman ruled that the records must be produced because business records “do not fall within any recognized zone of privacy.” He also said the protection of children outweighed privacy interests.

Milwaukee Archdiocese spokeswoman Kathleen Hohl said the church would comply with the judge’s order.

Raymond P. Boucher, attorney for numerous plaintiffs who are suing the Los Angeles Archdiocese, said the ruling could lead to the release of church documents in Los Angeles cases. “It lays out in a detailed, organized fashion just how important public access is to these documents,” Boucher said.

But Donald H. Steier, who has represented Los Angeles priests accused of abuse for more than two decades, said the ruling on the Milwaukee files would not affect Los Angeles lawsuits because it applied to a dead priest, Widera. “This has nothing to do with living priests,” he said.

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Many details of Widera’s case had surfaced through documents released earlier. Widera was accused of molesting three boys in Orange County in 1985. Bishop William R. Johnson gave him three options: get treatment, go to a monastery or leave the priesthood, according to previously released documents.

The priest chose therapy at a residential treatment center in Jemez Springs, N.M., where he was diagnosed with pedophilia, a report says.

At the center, Widera admitted that he molested at least 10 boys in Orange County, according to a psychological evaluation.

Despite his earlier conviction, diagnosis of deviancy and confession, the director of the treatment facility worked to find Widera a post in another region after the Diocese of Orange had refused to take him back.

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“I believe that Siegfried is truly a good minister and will continue to be a good minister within the church. It would be a shame for him not to be able to find a bishop who would accept him,” a 1986 progress report to Johnson said. Widera dropped out of the treatment program and became a businessman.

Widera was charged with 42 counts of molestation in Orange County and Milwaukee in 2002. He was on the run for a year and in 2003 leaped to his death from a hotel window in Mazatlan when cornered by authorities. He was 62.

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peter.hong@latimes.com

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