News media can intervene in priest-files fight
LOS ANGELES — News organizations can intervene to oppose redactions in the personnel files of priests accused of sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, a judge ruled Dec. 27.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Emilie Elias issued an order allowing the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times to file written briefs and argue against the redactions at a Jan. 7 hearing.
The news outlets sought to intervene because the archdiocese plans to make thousands of pages of files public by Jan. 14 under a previous judge’s order that allows it to black out the names of some accused clerics and all members of the church hierarchy.
An attorney for the AP and the Los Angeles Times argued in papers filed Dec. 27 that blacking out the names of the archdiocese’s leaders will prevent the public from learning which church officials knew about abusive priests, how much they knew and how they handled the situation. Files released in other dioceses, such as Boston, have shown that the church shuffled priests among parishes without calling police.
“At their core, the Archdiocese’s arguments for secrecy are much less about legitimate privacy concerns and much more about a desire to avoid further embarrassment over Church officials’ failure to protect children from sexual abuse by priests,” wrote Rochelle Wilcox, the news media attorney.
More than 550 plaintiffs settled with the archdiocese in 2007 for a record-breaking $660 million, but the agreement also called for the release of the personnel files. The documents include letters and memos between top church officials and their attorneys, medical and psychological records, complaints from parents and, in some cases, correspondence with the Vatican about abusive priests.
An archdiocese attorney, Michael Hennigan, said he didn’t believe the judge had the power to undo the redactions. The church will argue against any changes in papers due to the court early next week, he said. Any changes will further delay the release, which the archdiocese wants to finish by Jan. 14, he added.
“This is no small task, looking through thousands of pages and locating little names that need to be excluded,” Hennigan said.
An attorney representing more than 20 accused priests has argued that releasing his clients’ personnel files is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy. The attorney, Don Steier, refused to comment on the latest legal developments.
Ray Boucher, the lead attorney for plaintiffs, wrote in court papers Dec. 27 that he was allowed to review three priest personnel files to see the extent of the redactions, which he said “grossly overstep” the limits set by the previous judge.
“The names of Cardinals, Archbishops, Vicars for Clergy, Chancellors, Monsignors, and Pastors will be redacted from the files,” he wrote. “In short, each of the higher-ups in the Los Angeles Archdiocese who recklessly endangered generations of this community’s children by protecting pedophile priests will themselves be protected.”
The judge is expected to decide whether the redactions will remain after hearing arguments at the Jan. 7 hearing.