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Abusive priests’ personnel files remain under wraps

Three years after the 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.

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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 a 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 covered up accusations.

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.

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The release of the priests’ personnel files was the subject of 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.”

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

Even after the documents wind through the long, painstaking vetting process, it remains unclear how many documents will be released.

Donald Steier, who is representing about 30 living priests included in the settlement, said he has raised a blanket objection that not a single page should be released from his clients’ files. Plaintiffs do not have the legal grounds to overcome the priests’ right to privacy, and the church doesn’t have the right to turn over personnel files if the priests object, he said.

“The case law requires the church to honor objections of individuals, and the church is bound by that restriction unless courts were to order otherwise,” he said. “That kind of takes it out of the hands of the church altogether, and that’s not just the church, that’s all employment situations.”

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Steier said that because the judge is going through the files of deceased priests first, he has yet to argue any of his objections before the referee. And although the plaintiffs and the archdiocese agreed in the settlement that the referee’s ruling would be final, Steier still has the option of appealing any decisions made by Tevrizian, thereby further delaying release of files.

While plaintiffs in the L.A. cases wait, people in dioceses where personnel documents have been publicly released said the disclosure brought them validation for their accounts of events and a sense of empowerment. Some have posted the files online or used them to warn others of possible abuses.

Manuel Vega, a retired police officer who said he was molested as a boy in Oxnard and whose case was included in the settlement, said the release would allow the church to move past the history of abuse.

“Holocaust survivors tenaciously went out there and got documents, got oral history recorded, got photographs and put it into a timeline to accurately depict the atrocities that happened. The same process has to happen for what occurred in the Catholic Church,” he said. “As Catholics we have to seek documentation, all the written evidence there is, and get a comprehensive history of what took place and how we’re never going to let this happen again.”

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But Perez-Carrillo said he and others doubt the disclosure will ever happen.

“In a perfect world, the church will call a press conference, and they’ll say, ‘We’re releasing all complaints of abuse, you can go onto the archdiocese website and see it all,’ ” he said. “They’re always talking about transparency. . . . True transparency would be, ‘What do you want to know?’ ”

victoria.kim@latimes.com


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