Los Angeles -- Roman Catholic Church authorities in a Southern California diocese shuffled pedophile priests between parishes for two decades, according to personnel files released by a judge.
In what has become a familiar tale of cover-ups by the U.S. Catholic Church, the files of 15 priests and teachers painted a picture of secrecy and stonewalling over what mushroomed into a damaging nationwide priestly sex abuse scandal.
The files were ordered released by a Los Angeles judge late on Tuesday as part of a $100 million settlement -- one of the largest since the scandal broke in Boston in 2002 -- reached in January between the diocese of Orange and 90 alleged victims of molestation.
Five of the priests are dead. The 10 other priests and teachers raised no objection to the ruling.
Raymond Boucher, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the files revealed how the Orange diocese "helped to take a priest who had engaged in criminal conduct and move that priest from church to church, from diocese to diocese, and as a result, a significant number of lives have been destroyed."
Diocese of Orange Bishop Tod Brown, who was appointed in 1998 after most of the alleged sexual abuse took place, approved the release.
"As a compassionate Church, we did not do right by those who suffered. I hope and pray that the release of these documents marks a turning point toward healing and recovery for those who have suffered and for their families," Brown said in a statement.
The Catholic Church sex abuse scandal broke in Boston in 2002 and forced the resignation of Boston archbishop Cardinal Bernard Law. The U.S. Catholic Church said in a report in February that it had received 1,092 new claims in 2004 of sexual abuse by at least 756 priests and deacons nationwide.
The most damaging of the Orange diocese files centered on five priests and showed how bishops and administrators played down allegations against clergy and often ignored or trivialized concerns of teachers and parents.
In one case, officials moved a serial molester to Tijuana, Mexico. In another, they offered an abuser several thousand dollars to leave the priesthood quietly.
One bishop wrote to a parishioner describing one priest as "a fine priest, zealous and generous-hearted" although the man had a known history of molesting boys. The priest, Eleuterio Ramos, died in 2004 after telling police a year earlier he had fondled or molested at least 25 boys.
"It is hard to believe that our spiritual leaders would knowingly sacrifice lives of innocent children ... to keep up the facade and (live) a lie" one mother wrote to an Orange diocesan administrator in 1986 after learning that the priest accused of abusing her son three years earlier had gone on to sexually abuse three other boys.
The release of the Orange diocese files puts pressure on the Los Angeles archdiocese, the nation's largest, which has been fighting through the courts for two years to keep similar files from being made public.
The Los Angeles archdiocese faces lawsuits from more than 500 people and by some estimates could face a possible total settlement bill of $1 billion.