LOS ANGELES – A California appeals court ruled Thursday that psychiatric and other confidential records of Franciscan friars accused of sex abuse should be made public in a long-awaited decision that could speed the release of similar documents about dozens of other accused priests and religious figures.
Unless the state Supreme Court takes up the case, the ruling from the 2nd District Court of Appeal means thousands of pages of files on six friars accused of sexual abuse will be released in the coming months.
The decision also could influence judges in Los Angeles and San Diego who are deciding how much material to release from the confidential files of Roman Catholic priests and lay people involved in multimillion-dollar settlements in those dioceses.
"All citizens have a compelling interest in knowing if a prominent and powerful institution has cloaked in secrecy decades of sexual abuse revealed in the psychiatric records of counselors who continued to have intimate contact with vulnerable children while receiving treatment for their tendencies toward child molestation," the court wrote in its opinion.
The files are expected to contain records of the friars' sessions with therapists and psychotherapists, disciplinary and personnel files, and defrocking paperwork that could show how much the Franciscans knew about their employees' behavior and when they knew it.
Attorneys for the Franciscans and the individual friars had argued the files were protected from public disclosure by the privacy rights that patients expect when they see a doctor or therapist.
But the court ruled that those rights evaporated when members of the Franciscan hierarchy viewed the records to help make decisions about postings, discipline and other management issues for religious figures who were suspected of abuse, said Tim Hale, a plaintiff attorney in Santa Barbara.
Hale said although the Franciscan leadership knew about abusive behavior from reading the materials, they never notified police or made the knowledge public.
"It's about transparency, and that's the best weapon in the fight against child abuse. It's what this proceeding has been about since day one," he said. "This is as close as we can get to repairing the damage that was done by the Franciscan hierarchy."
Brian Brosnahan, an attorney for the Franciscans, did not immediately return a call or e-mail sent after business hours.
An attorney representing the individual friars, however, said Thursday's ruling robs the church — or any other organization dealing with children — of a way to find out if abuse is taking place without threatening the suspected abuser.
Priests or other employees who are molesting children may now choose not to discuss their crimes with a therapist because those records could be made public, said Robert Howie, who represents the individual friars.
"Discovery of this type of behavior is aided by the use of these confidential inquiries and psychotherapy, and that's been basically gutted by the appellate court here," he said.
"I appreciate the fact that these past victims want their retribution. What I think the court is doing is focusing on that anger and that desire for retribution."
Howie said it was too early to say if the friars would petition to the state's high court.
The case arose from a lawsuit filed by 25 plaintiffs alleging sexual abuse by nine Franciscan friars.
The alleged victims settled the case for $28.4 million in 2006, and the agreement called for the release of confidential files after review by a judge.
Most of the friars who were accused, however, did not sign the settlement agreement.
The trial judge ruled that the files could be released because the public interest outweighed the friars' privacy rights, but six of the friars appealed.
The appeals panel on Thursday upheld the original order.