LOS ANGELES – Secret files kept for decades by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles on priests accused of sexually abusing children could soon become public as a five-year legal battle over their release reaches its endgame.
A judge will hear final objections Monday from accused priests and is also expected to begin hashing out a timeline for the release of thousands of pages of top-secret church documents on abusive clerics. Plaintiff attorneys have been trying to gain access to the files since a $660 million settlement in 2007 called for their disclosure.
Earlier this year, the California Supreme Court declined to intervene after a lower court ordered the release of some of the files, setting the stage for a larger disclosure.
Both attorneys for the church and the plaintiffs said they expected the documents would be made public within a month and no later than February after Monday's critical hearing. Private files on Franciscan friars accused of abuse were released earlier this year after a similar legal fight.
"There are explosive documents that are going to be coming out," said lead plaintiff attorney Ray Boucher, who has seen some of the material while reviewing it with archdiocese attorneys in preparation for the release.
"I don't think there's any question but that the information that will be forthcoming ... is beyond anything the public has seen so far."
The files contain letters between church leaders, including the recently retired Cardinal Roger Mahony, letters to and from the priests themselves, notes and memos about reports of suspected abuse, medical and psychological records and — in some cases — paperwork petitioning for a particular priest's defrocking by the Vatican.
Michael Hennigan, an archdiocese attorney, said the church is committed to releasing the documents but wants to make sure the privacy rights of priests are protected.
Plaintiffs in particular want to see if — and when — archdiocese officials were warned about their alleged abusers or if the church avoided civil and criminal action by not reporting to police or shuffling accused clerics from parish to parish or diocese to diocese.
The archbishop has apologized for his handling of the sex abuse scandal and has acknowledged missteps in how he handled several highly publicized cases, including that of former priest Michael Baker.
Baker told Mahony at a retreat in 1986 that he had molested two young boys but the archbishop has said he didn't alert anyone because the priest told him the children were illegal immigrants who had returned to Mexico.
That case seriously tarnished Mahony's reputation and prompted a criminal grand jury probe that never resulted in charges.
When the Los Angeles archdiocese settled its abuse cases in 2007, lead plaintiff attorney Boucher estimated that Baker's conduct accounted for $40 million of the total.
The former priest was arrested in 2006 as he returned from a vacation in Thailand and ultimately sentenced to 10 years in prison for molestation.