Details Disclosed From Secret Los Angeles Priest Files
L.A. Archdiocese had resisted turning over the
material on clerics accused of sex abuse.
By Jean Guccione, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
August 1, 2004
Lawyers for Cardinal Roger M. Mahony are now providing plaintiffs'
attorneys information about confidential church personnel
files on priests accused of sexual misconduct.
Those files have been sought in court for more than a year
by both prosecutors and the lawyers who have sued the Los
Angeles Archdiocese on behalf of more than 500 victims claiming
abuse by priests.
Mahony's lawyers argued that the documents were protected
by the 1st Amendment right of religious freedom and numerous
laws, including those covering communications between lawyers
and their clients, psychotherapists and their patients, and
penitents and their confessors.
Attorney Jeffrey Anderson of St. Paul, Minn., said the prolonged
legal fights over disclosure of the files are typical. Courts
in at least 13 states have ordered documents contained in
secret priest files to be disclosed, he said. The court in
just one state, Wisconsin, has ruled for the church.
To avoid what they contend would be confidentiality breaches,
Mahony's lawyers have agreed after months of mediation to
compile summaries of documents contained in more than 100
confidential priest files being sought in the civil cases.
Advocates for victims say the internal church documents
like those disclosed in Boston and other U.S. dioceses
could provide new insights into how Mahony and other high-ranking
church officials responded to complaints from parents, parishioners
and others that priests were sexually abusing minors. Some
plaintiffs have said they will refuse to resolve their claims
until they see the confidential files on their abusers.
Confidential files played an important role in the outcome
of a 1998 trial involving a former Stockton priest who Mahony
supervised when he was bishop there, according to plaintiffs'
lawyers. They introduced evidence from the priest's confidential
file a 1976 letter of apology by the priest to the
family of an 11-year-old girl he admitted molesting. The jury
awarded $30 million to two brothers who said they were molested
by the same priest, Father Oliver Francis O'Grady, years after
the letter was written. Mahony testified that he was unaware
of the letter, which was written four years before he became
bishop of Stockton.
The Catholic Church has acknowledged that it sometimes compiles
two separate sets of files: one standard personnel file and
another once known as "sub secreto," which can contain
the sensitive information.
Irvine attorney Katherine K. Freberg has viewed 15 secret
files as part of lawsuits. She said they provide a more complete
picture of the accused priests than separate personnel files
that church officials are more likely to disclose.
"When you look at the personnel file, you would think
the priest was on his way to becoming the next bishop,"
Freberg said. "Then when you finally get the secret archive
it shows multiple allegations against the priest,
psychological reports diagnosing the priest as a pedophile
and sham investigations by the diocese."
Disclosure of such files is "crucial for understanding
the persistent dangerous decision-making patterns of the hierarchy,"
said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network
of Those Abused by Priests. "If there is nothing in those
files, show us for heaven's sake, and that would go a long
way to restoring trust in the leadership" of the church.
Mahoney's spokesman, Tod Tamberg, said the fight over releasing
the documents is "about principle."
In some cases, Tamberg said, the files will show that the
archdiocese acted responsibly by referring accused priests
to treatment or removing them from ministry.
"The accused is presumed guilty regardless of the tenuousness
of the accusation and the burden of proving innocence is shifted
to the accused," he said.
By contrast, Orange Bishop Tod D. Brown has handed over all
the documents in any file, except for psychotherapy reports.
So far, Mahony has resisted handing over confidential priest
personnel files to criminal prosecutors. Retired Los Angeles
County Superior Court Judge Thomas Nuss is expected to rule
soon on whether prosecutors are entitled to the files.
In the civil cases, Mahony's lawyers are voluntarily providing
a judge with summaries of documents in the confidential files,
including information about when church officials learned
of alleged abuses and how they responded. After he has reviewed
the summaries, the judge has been turning them over to lawyers
for the plaintiffs.
None of the new information has been made public.
Patrick J. Schiltz, a law professor at the University of
St. Thomas who once defended churches in molestation cases,
voiced concern for the way some plaintiffs' lawyers have tried
to make the mere existence of secret church files "sound
dark and sinister
[involving] some dark cabal of evil
But plaintiffs' lawyers cite internal church documents showing
that bishops were under orders from the Vatican until 2001
to require those involved in the investigations, including
the accuser and witnesses, to take vows of secrecy. There
was a threat of excommunication from the Catholic Church for
those who even revealed that the papal order existed, according
to Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk and national expert
on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church who acts as a consultant
to plaintiffs' attorneys.
Freberg said she was unaware that there was a second, secret
archive file until she was told by a lawyer for the diocese
of Orange in 1998 that she would never see the one they kept
on Msgr. Michael A. Harris, who was accused of molesting 12
high school boys.
She began a legal fight to open the files for litigation.
Eventually plaintiffs' lawyers got the file, which included
a confidential 12-page psychological evaluation diagnosing
Harris with same-sex paraphilia and ephebophilia a
sexual attraction to adolescent boys and sexual deviance.
Harris, the former principal at Mater Dei High School in
Santa Ana, has denied the allegations. He left the priesthood
as part of a 2001 settlement with one of his accusers. The
dioceses of Los Angeles and Orange also paid $5.2 million
to the victim.