October 13, 2005

Released Files Lead Priests' Accusers to Protest

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 12 - By releasing files on scores of priests accused of sexually molesting children, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles hoped to quiet critics who have accused it of stonewalling and to speed a settlement with 560 accusers in a civil suit.

But the disclosures on Tuesday instead provoked an outcry from those who say they were victimized by priests, accusations of a coverup from the district attorney who is pursuing criminal charges against several priests and promises from lawyers in the civil case to press their claims in court to gain full access to the church's personnel files.

The released documents show decades of priests' abuse of children, in some cases for years after church officials had been notified of the misconduct. The files show that only in the last few years did the church begin to take effective action.

The archdiocese, which has been led since 1985 by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, is hoping to put the problem to rest by settling 560 claims against it in a single action, avoiding individual trials that could bring years of lurid disclosures and yield hundreds of multimillion-dollar judgments.

Lawyers pursuing the claims said Wednesday that the disclosures made them more determined to take their cases to trial.

"We are going to get cases tried in public, where all of this will come out," said Katherine K. Freberg, a lawyer for more than 100 people who accuse members of the clergy of sexual abuse. "What these documents don't include is the witness testimony about what the priests knew, what the bishops knew, what the cardinal knew. These sanitized documents don't begin to touch what we will be disclosing through the litigation process."

Ms. Freberg and other plaintiffs' lawyers said they were preparing to go to trial for several priests whose cases, they say, will lay out in detail the priests' predatory behavior and their superiors' efforts to conceal it.

Ms. Freberg said the first trials would most likely be for priests with multiple victims like George Neville Rucker, a former priest accused of molesting 33 boys in the 1960's, 70's and 80's.

The lead lawyer for the archdiocese, J. Michael Hennigan, said Wednesday that he was hopeful that a settlement could be reached with the plaintiffs before the cases went to trial.

"It is our sincere objective to reach a settlement globally with all these people before they go to trial," Mr. Hennigan said. "It will be a wonderful thing if I can move on from this assignment in the next few months. It's possible."

Even as the civil process grinds on, the Los Angeles County district attorney, Steve Cooley, is pursuing criminal charges against a number of priests. The first trial, of Michael Wempe, a retired priest accused of molesting at least four adolescent boys in the 70's and 80's, is scheduled for trial next month in Superior Court here. The district attorney is also battling the archdiocese in court over material in the priests' files that the church has tenaciously fought to keep secret, citing First Amendment guarantees of the free exercise of religion as well as priest-penitent and therapist-patient privileges. The case is pending before the California Supreme Court.

"Three years ago," Mr. Cooley said Wednesday in a statement, "I urged Cardinal Mahony to provide the fullest possible disclosure of evidence of sexual abuse by clergy. Despite two court rulings ordering disclosure, Cardinal Mahony continues to claim 'confidentiality privileges' that no court has recognized."

Outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the seat of the archdiocese and the home of Cardinal Mahony, 12 people who said they were victims of priests' abuse called on the cardinal to tell the full truth of the church's behavior.

"Ever so gradually, your lies are being exposed," said Mary Grant, regional director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, addressing herself to the absent cardinal. "You knew that the rape of kids was a crime. You kept it secret. You didn't call the police. You moved the predators. You caused more innocent lives to be shattered. That's the bottom line."

Ms. Grant said the documents released this week reported four new cases of priests who were allowed to continue ministering to children after complaints of abuse had been received and 26 new names of clerics accused of sexual misconduct.

She called the documents "parsed and partial summaries" of the priests' personnel files and predicted that the full extent of the church and the cardinal's misconduct would emerge when the complete files are disclosed in civil and criminal trials.

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