Legal Issues

 Legal Headlines



California priests' files to be kept secret
Major victory for Catholic Church as Oakland judge reverses earlier ruling

An Oakland judge handed the Roman Catholic Church a significant victory Wednesday, ruling that the public isn't entitled to see personnel files of priests accused of sexual abuse.

The order by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw gave the church most of the broad order it sought to maintain confidentiality of records involved in about 160 cases of alleged sexual misconduct by priests in Northern and Central California.

Eleven of the cases were filed against the Santa Rosa Diocese, alleging that church officials failed to protect children from offending priests.

The Santa Rosa lawsuits involve former priests Don Kimball, Gary Timmons and Patrick Gleeson.

Sabraw's final order overturned a tentative ruling he issued two weeks ago at the request of The Press Democrat and other news organizations, which petitioned the court for access to the personnel files.

"It's a major reversal," said Judy Alexander, an attorney for The Press Democrat. "We lost a lot of ground."

The Press Democrat and San Francisco Chronicle argued in court that public interest in the sex abuse scandal outweighed the church's privacy interests.

In his tentative order, Sabraw said the personnel files would no longer be designated as confidential. But in his final order, which came two weeks after listening to arguments in court, he said both victims and defendant priests "have legitimate privacy interests in their employment, medical, psychiatric, financial and similar records."

The personnel files were the key to unraveling the church's failings, Alexander said. "That was how we were going to tell what the church defendants knew and when they knew it," she said.

The Santa Rosa Diocese, which covers 43 parishes from Petaluma to the Oregon border, has acknowledged that 16 former priests were accused of sexual misconduct with minors and that $8.6 million has been paid to victims.

But it never has named an accused priest. Seven of the priests have been identified by victims or through civil or criminal proceedings; nine have not been identified.

The judge also reversed himself in ruling that the names of church officials who aren't defendants but are "implicitly accused of neglect" are to remain confidential.

The only documents that are "presumptively public" are church administrative records and procedures, he said.

Paul Gaspari, the lead lawyer for the church, couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday evening.

Victims' lawyers had supported the newspapers' bid for access to the church documents.

Rick Simons, the lead plaintiffs' lawyer, said the church's legal position conflicts with the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference pledge of transparency in dealing with the sex abuse scandal.

"In fact, what they did in court is just the opposite," Simons said. "It's not a question of law. It's a question of why they are retreating from their promises."

In his order, Sabraw said the public has been alerted to the scandal, which erupted nationwide in 2002 but had been reported in Santa Rosa since 1994.

"In addition, the public has been informed that employees of religious entities can engage in childhood sexual abuse and that the church defendants have allegedly failed to respond promptly to notice of childhood sexual abuse," he said.

But whether a specific priest injured a specific defendant "is a matter for individual claims," he said, "and is not a matter of public health or safety."

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests