allows release of clergy personnel files
The ruling states that
protecting children from abuse outweighs a priest's right to privacy.
John Spano and Greg Krikorian,
LA Times Staff Writers
June 19, 2007
judge ruled Monday that confidential personnel files on Roman Catholic clergy
accused of molesting children can be made public even if the clerics were never
charged with a crime and legal claims against them were not proven.
rights of privacy must give way to the state's interest in protecting its children
from sexual abuse," Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Peter D. Lichtman
said in his 22-page ruling.
The decision concerns a small number of Franciscan
friars, who will have an opportunity to object to disclosure of specific documents
before the files are opened.
Nevertheless, the ruling could have dramatic
ramifications on more than 500 legal claims pending against the Los Angeles Archdiocese,
which is accused of failing to protect parishioners from sexual victimization
over the last 60 years.
In Los Angeles, lawyers spent years trying to negotiate
a settlement, estimated to be as much as $1 billion, without success. The first
trials are set to begin in July.
Now, the church is also facing possible
disclosure of how it handled abuse complaints.
"I think it's very
significant," John C. Manly, an attorney who represents plaintiffs in Los
Angeles and Orange counties, said of Lichtman's ruling.
that if you engage in the concealment of child sexual abuses,
you will not only pay for your misdeeds but the public at large will be able to
see what you did," Manly said.
J. Michael Hennigan, lawyer for Cardinal
Roger M. Mahony and the L.A. Archdiocese, declined to comment, saying he had not
seen the ruling. Donald Steier, who represents many accused priests in Los Angeles,
also declined comment.
Robert G. Howie, an attorney for the friars, said
the ruling misinterpreted California law on privacy rights, which he said were
stronger than in other states.
"You've got officials in Washington
who want to do everything they can do to prevent another 9/11. Does that mean
they can conduct wiretaps whenever they want to?" Howie asked.
1st Amendment lawyers praised the judge's decision.
"The court properly
balanced the constitutional right to privacy against the right of the public to
protect its children and safeguard itself against future harm, and it found that
the public's right to know overwhelmingly won out," said Tom Newton, general
counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn.
The ruling came in
the cases of 10 current and former Franciscans who were accused of fondling, masturbating,
orally copulating and sodomizing boys and girls for 30 years starting in the 1950s.
of the allegations arose at St. Anthony's Seminary in Santa Barbara, which closed
The church in March 2006 agreed to pay more than $28 million to
25 accusers. The victims asked Lichtman to release the files.
the Franciscan friars objected, contending that because the claims had been settled,
Lichtman had no authority to order the files opened. In 2005, Lichtman released
more than 10,000 pages from the personnel files of 15 priests and teachers as
part of a court-approved $100-million settlement between the Diocese of Orange
and 90 alleged molestation victims.
But the judge said at the time that
he was "powerless" to pry open files on eight other priests and teachers
who objected because the lawsuits had been settled.
On Monday, however,
in a 22-page ruling, Lichtman stated flatly that California's "compelling
interest in protecting children from harm is present regardless of the stage of
"To answer any of the above questions in the
affirmative would be to punish the alleged victims for seeking an early resolution
of the cases and needlessly prolong matters through trial," Lichtman ruled.
"It would provide the alleged perpetrators and enablers with a safe haven
for settlement. The defendants' conduct would be forever hidden and safe from
Lichtman noted that all of the priests whose dossiers were
in question had admitted abuse or "show[n] dangerous propensities toward
Lichtman cited Franklyn Becker, a friar accused of multiple
molestations. "In sworn testimony, Becker testified about his attraction
to boys, his interest in the Man-Boy Love Association, his leanings toward being
attracted to post pubescent boys, and that he gave names of people to the Archdiocese
that might come forward with allegations," Lichtman wrote.
also said that, according to sworn testimony provided by the plaintiffs, Santa
Barbara had one of the highest per-capita concentrations of clergy pedophiles
in the history of clergy abuse cases in the United States, with 41 clergy accused
of assaulting 76 children.
The opinion gives victims "a tremendously
strong argument, thanks to Judge Lichtman," said Timothy C. Hale, who argued
the case for the accusers of the Franciscans.
"Often, it comes down
to one simple choice: do we safeguard the reputations of one powerful adult or
the well-being of many powerless kids," said David Clohessy, national director
of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "The judge made the
© 2007 Los Angeles Times