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California Ruling Shifts Focus to Church Documents


LOS ANGELES (AP) -- With the U.S. Supreme Court striking down a California law that made it easier to prosecute sex offenders, a judge's decision on whether to force the Los Angeles Archdiocese to release priests' personnel files is taking on greater importance.

The ruling could affect the fate of scores of civil suits against the church that are still in play after the high court decision caused several criminal cases involving priests to be thrown out.

At very least, accusers say, opening up the documents may vindicate their claims.

But the judge considering prosecutors' requests to release files is doing so in closed-door grand jury proceedings, so it's not clear when -- if ever -- his decision will be made public.

The result may be more frustration for those who claim they were molested by Roman Catholic priests and are pursuing civil lawsuits.

Alleged victims were already outraged last month when the Supreme Court overturned a California law that lifted the statute of limitations in criminal prosecution of old molestation cases.

The ruling increased the importance of the Los Angeles Archdiocese's files, in large part because the documents could provide fresh evidence for prosecutors in the civil suits, which aren't subject the statute of limitations.

``If there are cases that can still be pursued, we are going to pursue them vigorously,'' said Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles District Attorney's office.

The Los Angeles Archdiocese -- the nation's biggest -- is the only Catholic diocese in California that has adopted the stance that priest personnel files are protected by the First Amendment, though other dioceses around the country have made similar arguments.

``Wouldn't you think that the largest Roman Catholic archdiocese in the country would be taking a position of openness?'' said Katherine Freberg, an Irvine attorney who represents 112 alleged victims.

Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, said the church is not trying to create immunity for priests serving the 5 million Catholics at 287 parishes.

``We are not concealing wrongdoing,'' Tamberg said. ``That was not our purpose for asking that these documents remain sealed.''

At issue, he said, is the sanctity of private conversations between priests and bishops, which the church argues is protected speech under the Constitution.

If the files are made public, Tamberg said, ``No priest will talk to a bishop because that may end up on the front page of a newspaper one day.''

Tamberg said the church remains committed to compensation for victims of church abuse and is ``moving forward in good faith.''

In Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law resigned as archbishop in December under after personnel records, made public by court order, revealed that he and other church administrators protected priests accused of molesting children.

``Those documents proved in great part the liability of the supervisors,'' said Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer who successfully argued for the release of files of imprisoned former Boston-area priest John Geoghan.

For now, the Los Angeles files are locked in criminal court, unavailable to prosecutors or the accusers' lawyers. The archdiocese has said the files contain reports by people claiming abuse by priests, psychological evaluations of the priests and transcripts of their interviews by bishops.

Retired Judge Thomas F. Nuss, appointed special referee in the document dispute, last week issued a confidential draft of his decision to lawyers on both sides.

Already stung by last month's Supreme Court decision, the accusers are bracing for another possible disappointment.

Freberg, the Irvine attorney, is proceeding ``as if we are not getting any documents.'' She said her civil cases may prevail based on what is said in court.

Newport Beach financial adviser Lee Bashforth, who said he was molested by a priest as a child, insists the church documents ``have to come out.'' He said members of his support group have been on suicide watch and he has ``barely been able to get out of bed'' since the Supreme Court ruling.

The former priest, Michael Wempe, accused of molesting five boys from 1977 to 1986, spent only a week in jail before the Supreme Court decision required prosecutors to drop charges. He maintains his innocence.

``If we can't get justice,'' Bashforth said, ``then we have a right to know what has happened.''

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests