San Diego Diocese releases priests’ records in sex abuse cases
After a three-year legal fight, documents were released Sunday detailing the years of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the San Diego Diocese that led to a $198.1-million settlement with 144 victims in September 2007.
The documents involved 48 priests, most of whose names the diocese disclosed in March 2007. But few details had been released other than to say “credible allegations” had been made against them. None of the 48 is still in the diocese and all but a half-dozen are dead.
Although the diocese quickly paid the settlement, its lawyers fought in court to limit disclosure of the personnel records, citing various personal and medical-record privacy laws.
Disclosure has become an issue in other dioceses where sexual allegations were made and settlements reached. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which reached a $660-million settlement in 2007, has yet to release the records sought by victims’ attorneys.
In the San Diego case, a retired Superior Court judge Friday ordered that thousands of pages of documents be made public. Most are routine records of monthly reports and various correspondence; only a fraction show allegations or the actions of higher-ups in the church.
But the pages that do involve allegations show a pattern that has become common to clerical sexual abuse cases in other dioceses: Victims and their families were often ignored or called liars; diocese officials transferred priests when allegations were made but never contacted the police; and the San Diego Diocese found parishes for priests being transferred from elsewhere in the country to avoid allegations.
One case is that of Robert Nikliborc, a priest who served time in federal prison for failing to file income taxes. He had been accused of living a double life as a wealthy married man in Palm Springs and was later accused of molesting several youths under his care at a Banning school for boys.
In 1976 then-Bishop Leo T. Maher wrote to the pope’s delegate in Washington, D.C., saying of Nikliborc that it “would seem he has a dual personality, has charm and a most pleasing personality, and can easily win people over to his views. But if one does not agree, he is really vicious, very vindictive. … I can say in all honesty he is a liar and a very dishonest person. … I do not believe he should be allowed to function as a priest.”
Jean Jadot, the Holy See’s apostolic delegate to the U.S., responded: “I realize that you will have to do something. My only suggestion is that you try and avoid as much harmful publicity for the church as possible.”
Nikliborc continued serving at Saint Anne Catholic Church in San Diego and more than two decades later, when the priest himself asked to retire, his superiors asked him to stay on.
Even when the diocese took action against a priest, it took years to follow through.
In 2002, Bishop Robert Brom sent a letter to the Rev. John Keith, whom the diocese had sent to psychiatric treatment a decade earlier. The letter noted that since 1993 several adults had alleged that Keith had molested them as children. Brom informed Keith that he could no longer celebrate Mass or present himself as a priest. But the diocese continued to let him live in a facility for retired priests and helped pay his bills.
The letter from Brom concludes: “I encourage you to continue to lead a life of prayer and penance as reparation for your past misconduct.”
At an afternoon news conference, David Clohessy, a national leader of SNAP — Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests — called disclosure of the San Diego records “tremendously healing and validating” for victims.
“This hard-won victory over secretive Catholic officials helps protect the vulnerable and heal the wounded,” Clohessy said.
Lawyers Anthony DeMarco and Irwin Zalkin, who had pressed for disclosure of the documents, said at a San Diego news conference Sunday that there are other documents, involving both the 48 priests and perhaps another half-dozen priests, that have yet to be made public. The diocese, the lawyers said, is continuing to insist in court that those records are covered by privacy laws.
The San Diego Diocese agreed to the September 2007 settlement after a bankruptcy judge doubted assertions by diocese lawyers that paying claims to victims could cripple the diocese’s pastoral and social service missions.
The diocese had filed for protection in Bankruptcy Court on the eve of the first abuse case going to trial. The bankruptcy filing put the court cases on hold.
But the bankruptcy judge proved unsympathetic to the diocese’s arguments. Among other things, the judge said the diocese’s financial recordkeeping was byzantine and its settlement offers far below what other dioceses were making.
The settlement called for the diocese to pay $77 million and its insurance carrier to pay $75 million to settle 111 cases. Religious orders would pay $30 million for 22 cases. The Diocese of San Bernardino, once part of the San Diego Diocese, would pay $15 million for 11 cases.