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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 file … 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 cardinals."

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.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests