Catholic officials in Orange County, California, knew for years of sexual misconduct allegations against priests and lay workers but did little to warn parishioners or to prevent future abuse, personnel files show.
The files of 14 priests and one lay person were released by court order yesterday after a judge ruled the information could help the state protect children from abuse.
The hundreds of pages suggest the diocese knew up to 30 years ago about alleged sexual misconduct among some of its clergy.
In many cases, priests were repeatedly referred for psychological treatment and counselling before finally being barred from the priesthood.
Some were not barred, but sent to other dioceses.
The decision to release the documents was heralded by the priests' accusers, who reached a record-breaking $US100 million ($A132.43 million) settlement with the Orange County diocese in December after nearly two years of negotiations.
As part of that agreement, the diocese agreed not to block the release of the files of accused priests and lay workers.
"This was a very important and historic decision," said Ray Boucher, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs in Southern California.
He said he would appeal against the judge's decision to leave sealed the files of five other priests and three lay teachers who contested their release.
Bishop Tod Brown, who arrived at the diocese in 1998, welcomed the disclosure of the files.
Most of the allegations in the papers dated from the 1970s and 1980s.
The settlement "was about taking moral responsibility for sins of the past that have caused suffering and pain", Bishop Brown said in a statement.
Lawyers for the priests had argued that the disclosures would violate privacy rights.
Five of the accused clergy are dead and the others could not be immediately located."
Five of the accused clergy who did not contest the release of the files are dead and the others could not be immediately located.
The 87 Orange County plaintiffs are among nearly 1000 people across California who filed lawsuits under a 2002 state law that extended the statute of limitations for many molestation cases.
So far, Bishop Brown is the only California prelate to resolve all of his diocese's sexual abuse claims and make public some of his priests' personnel files without a court order.
But files were released for only about one-third of the 44 diocesan employees accused of wrongdoing.
Files for some of the accused were not released because they were not part of the December settlement, as they belonged to other dioceses or religious orders, or because they hadobjected.
On Tuesday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Peter Lichtman said he had no jurisdiction to release the files for those who objected because the lawsuits had been settled.
"Only the most naive believe these files are complete," said Mary Grant, regional director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.