SAN DIEGO -- Attorneys for nearly 150 people who claim sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests made nearly 10,000 pages of previously sealed internal church documents public Sunday, revealing at least one previously unknown decades-old case in which a priest under police investigation was allowed to leave the U.S. after the Diocese of San Diego intervened.
After a three-year legal battle over the Diocese of San Diego's internal records, a retired San Diego Superior Court judge ruled late Friday that they could be made public. The records are from the personnel files of 48 priests who were either credibly accused or convicted of sexual abuse or were named in a civil lawsuit.
The 144 plaintiffs settled with the diocese in 2007 for nearly $200 million, but the agreement stipulated that an independent judge would review the priests' sealed personnel records and determine what could be made public.
The files show what the diocese knew about abusive priests, starting decades before any allegations became public, and that some church leaders shuffled priests from parish to parish or overseas despite credible complaints against them.
"We encourage all Catholics, all members of the community, to look for these documents," attorney Anthony DeMarco said at a news conference. "These documents demonstrate years and years and decades of concerted action that has allowed this community's children to be victimized, and it is not until the community looks at these documents that this cycle is ever going to be ended."
At least one of the priests, Gustavo Benson, is still in active ministry in the Diocese of Ensenada in Mexico, DeMarco said. In a 2002 interview with The Press-Enterprise of Riverside, Benson said he ministered to children there but had not done anything inappropriate. It wasn't immediately known what Benson's position at the diocese is now.
Donna Daly, a spokeswoman for the diocese, did not immediately return a call on Sunday and no one answered at the main diocese number. Maria Roberts, an attorney for the diocese, did not immediately respond to a message left with her office on Sunday.
In at least one instance, the files included documented abuse by a priest whose name had not before surfaced in any lawsuit or criminal case, the Rev. Luis Eugene de Francisco, who was originally from Colombia. Police investigated de Francisco for allegedly abusing children, but the diocese convinced authorities to drop the case if the priest would return immediately to his Colombian diocese and never return to the U.S.
"In early August 1963, Father was placed under arrest by the civil police of the City of San Diego for violation of the State Penal Code," then-Bishop Charles F. Buddy wrote the Colombian bishop in the Diocese of Cali. "At that time, arrangements were made between this Chancery and the civil authorities of San Diego in which, if Father left the United States with the promise never to return, the charges against Father would be set aside by Civil Law."
Buddy wrote that de Francisco had crossed the border at Tijuana, Mexico, and was "directed to return directly to the Diocese of Cali."
DeMarco said the papers in the files were the first time attorneys became aware of de Francisco. No one filed a lawsuit, the church never revealed the complaints and it's unclear what happened to the priest or if he is still alive, he said.
Church files indicate he also served in Florida and Texas before arriving in the San Diego diocese, where he worked with migrant workers in the Coachella Valley about 150 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
"You have won a reputation as a zealous worker and devoted to the poor," Bishop Buddy wrote the priest in a December 1962 letter.
"On the other hand, the 'incidents' at Indio were more serious than first presented to me, especially inasmuch as the police have made a record of them. You know how word gets around, so that you be certain that the police here will be on your trail. ... It will be more prudent and more secure for you to return to your own diocese."
Another case outlined in the files involves the Rev. Robert Nikliborc, who was sent to a psychiatric treatment facility in the 1950s after the diocese received complaints, then became director of a Roman Catholic residential facility for troubled boys called Boystown of the Desert in Banning, Calif.
Boys who lived there filed lawsuits against Nikliborc and were part of the 2007 settlement, DeMarco said. The priest died while litigation was under way.
In a 1956 letter written to Nikliborc while he was at a "special retreat," Buddy referred to two incidents involving the priest without describing them, and said Nikliborc must decide whether to stand with God or against him.
"The fact is that your defects on both occasions were reported by lay people, who gave absolute proof which you could not gloss over or deny," Buddy wrote. Still, he held out the possibility that Nikliborc could again celebrate Mass.
The papers also contain documents from the files of Rev. Anthony Rodrigue. In 1976, a group of parents at Rodrigue's parish in Heber, California, complained he had molested their children, according to court documents.
The priest was sent to a psychiatric facility in Massachusetts for treatment but was put back in ministry despite the recommendations of those who treated him.
Rodrigue later admitted he had molested between four to five children a year over a span of 22 years, said Irwin Zalkin, an attorney for the plaintiffs. About 30 people filed lawsuits against the diocese alleging sexual abuse against the priest, who died within the last year, he said.
"He was probably one of the most prolific abusers in this diocese. ... And they knew about this guy from his days in the seminary but kept him in ministry," Zalkin said.
Attorneys are still trying for the release of an additional 2,000 pages of documents.
The release of records is biggest so far in a U.S. church case, said Terry McKiernan, founder of the website Bishop Accountability.org. The website collects and publishes internal church papers that have been released as the result of litigation on clergy abuse nationwide.
"I think as we absorb this, it will shed a lot of light on these issues. It's amazingly rich," McKiernan said. "These documents are providing a window into the California experience that we haven't had before."
Lawyers for plaintiffs have been trying to get similar internal church documents from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for years, but have not had success. That diocese settled with more than 500 plaintiffs in 2007 for a record-breaking $660 million in a settlement agreement that also called for the disclosure of priests' files.
The only other release of church files in California came after a 2005 settlement between plaintiffs and the Diocese of Orange. About 4,000 pages were made public.