In its landmark $660-million settlement with victims of sexual abuse five years ago, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to make public the confidential personnel records of all priests accused of molesting children.
Victims said the release of the files would provide accountability for church leaders who let pedophiles remain in ministry, and law enforcement officials suggested that the documents could lead to criminal cases against those in charge.
After years of delays and legal wrangling, the files are set to become public in coming weeks.
But the documents have been scrubbed of what many regard as the most important information: the identities of the members of the church hierarchy who reshuffled abusers.
The names of the former cardinal, Roger M. Mahony, and the bishops and vicars who handled molestation complaints for him have been redacted by church lawyers at the direction of a retired federal judge managing the files’ release.
In handing down that decision last year, the judge, Dickran Tevrizian, said that the archdiocese had endured enough criticism and that he wanted to prevent the files from being used to “embarrass or to ridicule the Church.” The documents in question include internal memos, Vatican correspondence and psychiatric reports.
“You know that the Church recycles priests. Now you want to know who in the clergy recycled. For what useful purpose? The case is settled,” Tevrizian told lawyers for 562 people who settled sex-abuse claims against the archdiocese.
The terms of the agreement prohibit the archdiocese and the victims from appealing the redactions, but Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Emilie H. Elias, who is overseeing the settlement, has the final say. She has ruled that “any other interested person or entity” can ask her to review Tevrizian’s decisions on the files’ release.
Some abuse victims are hoping the judge decides to release the full, unredacted files, saying that would be in keeping with the settlement. Manuel Vega, a retired police officer who settled with the archdiocese over his abuse as an altar boy in Oxnard, said the officials’ names were essential in documenting the history of how the church handled allegations of child molestation.
“One of the first things I’m going to be looking for is, ‘Who knew?’ And who knew is what’s going to be redacted,” he said.
On Friday, The Times filed a motion urging Elias to overrule the redactions of church officials’ names.
“Without this information, the public will never know what the church knew, and when, because the names that might demonstrate that particular church officials knew about more than one instance of misconduct -- whether by a single priest or by multiple priests -- will be forever hidden,” lawyers for the newspaper wrote.
The accused clergy have filed their own objections to Tevrizian’s order, contending that the files should remain sealed to protect the priests’ privacy and other rights.
Lawyers for the archdiocese recently completed redacting the documents, a process that took over a year, and are awaiting Elias’ final ruling. Archdiocese attorney J. Michael Hennigan said he opposed modifying Tevrizian’s order because church leaders were eager to wrap up the “very expensive and painstaking” process.
“What we don’t want to have to do is go back and redo it,” Hennigan said.
After the scandal broke a decade ago, Mahony repeatedly pledged openness and transparency. He ordered the names of more than 200 accused abusers published in a 2004 report and apologized numerous times to victims. A spokesman for the archdiocese declined to say whether Mahony and other high-ranking church officials agreed that their names should be blacked out.
“This was the judge’s order and if you have questions about it, you really should direct those questions to the judge,” said spokesman Tod Tamberg.
Tevrizian declined to comment.
The archdiocese’s lawyer said readers of the documents will not “have any trouble at all figuring out which black mark is Cardinal Mahony.” The identities of others in the hierarchy, such as auxiliary bishops or the vicars who dealt with problem priests, may not be as apparent, he acknowledged. He said the archdiocese “potentially” would be willing to reveal redacted names in specific documents.
Lawyers for both sides said Tevrizian independently came up with the idea of redacting the hierarchy names. Raymond Boucher, the lead attorney for the victims, said the decision appeared to be an attempt to find some middle ground between his clients, who wanted all the files released without redactions, and the church, which argued that psychological records and other sensitive documents should be kept private.
“I think this was his compromise, almost as a carrot to the archdiocese,” Boucher said.
When he announced his decision at a March 2011 hearing, Tevrizian said he was impressed with the reforms the church had made to prevent future abuse and worried that if he did not black out the names of archdiocese employees they would be subjected to the sort of “guilt by association” of the McCarthy era.
Some church officials who would have dealt with abuse claims remain in positions of power within the church.
Law enforcement officials have expressed interest in the documents. Shortly after the 2007 settlement, then-Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said the personnel files would be key to an ongoing criminal investigation of the archdiocese’s dealings with abuser priests.
He said at the time that his prosecutors would not be able to move forward with the probe, then in its fifth year, until the files were released.
“We don’t know what remaining points of the puzzle will be revealed,” Cooley said then.
No one in the Los Angeles hierarchy has ever been charged criminally. A spokeswoman for newly installed Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey said the office remains eager to review the files.
At least one church official appears to have an ongoing concern about prosecution.
At a deposition this year, Msgr. Richard Loomis, vicar for priests during Mahony’s tenure, refused to answer questions about how he handled allegations against one priest who has since been criminally convicted, invoking his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination. His attorney declined to comment.
One plaintiff’s attorney, John Manly, pointed to the recent scandal at Penn State and noted that the university’s independent report named school officials accused of covering up for Jerry Sandusky, including the university president and legendary football coach Joe Paterno.
“Imagine if they said we’re going to exclude the names of those administrators who knew about his activities with children and did nothing. People would have had a fit,” he said.
Times staff writer Ashley Powers contributed to this report.