LA archdiocese to undo redactions in priest files

January 30, 2013 - 9:31 PM

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles will soon reveal 30,000 pages of confidential personnel files without blacking out the names of the church leaders who knew about sexual abuse by priests and made key decisions on how to handle it, an archdiocese attorney said Wednesday.

The names of any bishops, vicars for clergy and supervisory parish priests will be included in all the documents and they will be turned over to lawyers for abuse victims soon, said archdiocese attorney Michael Hennigan. Vicars for clergy are responsible for priestly discipline and often made significant decisions about how to handle problem priests with input from the bishop or archbishop.

"We have chosen to remove redactions of those key individuals on every document," Hennigan said in an email. "There will be no ambiguity."

The commitment to release the documents without significant redactions comes after a five-year legal battle over the priests' privacy rights and a more recent dispute in court with The Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times, along with victims, over identifying those in positions of responsibility within the archdiocese.

A first round of 14 priest files made public in Los Angeles nearly two weeks ago showed that recently retired Cardinal Roger Mahony and other top officials maneuvered behind the scenes to shield molester priests, provide damage control for the church and keep parishioners in the dark about sexual abuse in their parishes. Those documents, released as part of an unrelated civil lawsuit, were not redacted and provided a glimpse of what could be contained in the larger release expected no later than Feb. 22.

Rochelle Wilcox, the attorney representing the AP and the Los Angeles Times, said the church's promise was a victory for the public's right to know how church leaders handled molesting priests.

The media organizations filed an objection Wednesday to a proposed order by the archdiocese that would have allowed it to release the files with the names blacked out, but with a cover sheet on the top of each priest's file listing the names of top church leaders who handled the case.

Hennigan, in an email Wednesday, maintained that the proposed order gave the church the option of removing the redactions or providing a cover sheet for each file. The church chose to remove the redactions because it was too confusing to prepare cover sheets, Hennigan said.

A record-breaking $660 million settlement in 2007 set the stage for the release of the personnel files, which contain letters among top church officials, accused priests and archdiocese attorneys, complaints from parents, medical and psychological records and — in some cases — correspondence with the Vatican.

A judge's order in 2011 said the church could redact the names of the church hierarchy, but the LA Times and AP intervened earlier this month and another judge ordered the archdiocese to provide more transparency.

The confidential files could be turned over to more than 500 alleged victims as early as next week, said Ray Boucher, the lead attorney for plaintiffs. What's contained in the files is "chilling," Boucher said.

"Every bishop and every vicar of clergy has been so indoctrinated with the view of protecting the church from scandal that they allowed heinous crimes to be committed," he said.

"That's the irony in all of this. In their vain attempts to protect the image of the church, they've tarnished it beyond repair."