LA judge opens way for church sex-abuse cases to proceed

Associated Press/November 18, 2006

Los Angeles -- After a three-year delay, a court has opened the way for pretrial investigations to begin in more than 100 lawsuits filed by people claiming they were sexually molested by Roman Catholic priests.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Haley J. Fromholz released the claims for trial after a freeze that stalled discovery and other pretrial investigation. The freeze was imposed as lawyers for victims and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles spent years attempting to settle more than 570 claims, covering 60 years, without trials.

The decision involves 32 priests and only about 20 percent of the claims arising from the church scandal.

Katherine K. Freberg, an Irvine lawyer who represents 41 people who say they are victims, said she sent demands for documents to the church Thursday.

Thirty-three claims have already been settled by religious orders rather than by the archdiocese, and 46 others are near settlement, according to lawyers involved.

"There is only one thing that gets these cases settled: It's having trial dates and full-blown discovery," said M. Ryan DiMaria, a lawyer for several victims. "Therefore this is hugely important."

Without discovery - the subpoenaed production of records, depositions and written documents - "there's no pressure on the defendants to do anything," DiMaria said.

At the heart of the litigation is the claim that the church failed to protect its parishioners from pedophile priests and instead acted to shield the priests from civil and criminal liability.

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony has acknowledged that in the past, problem priests were sent to therapy and then transferred rather than reported to authorities and parishioners. The Catholic Church has since declared a zero tolerance policy on sexual misconduct by priests.

Also this week, a lawyer representing priests won a courthouse victory, persuading Fromholz to bar accusers' access to psychiatric information in church personnel files. The judge found that the documents, generally written communications between the church and health care providers, are confidential. State law prohibits the disclosure of medical treatment for mental and emotional illness without the consent of the patient.

The ruling was made in the case of Lynn Caffoe, who was suspended from the priesthood after sexual abuse claims were filed against him in 1991.

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