Judge rules that priest files must be released

Associated Press/February 7, 2007
By Gillian Flaccus

Los Angeles -- A judge Tuesday ordered the Roman Catholic Church to release insurance records and confidential files related to a notorious priest who had been convicted of molestation before being transferred to California.

Superior Court Judge Peter D. Lichtman ordered the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to make public 3,000 pages of insurance records and hundreds of pages from the secret disciplinary files of Siegfried Widera.

Lichtman wrote that Widera's files prove that "priests with known sexual proclivities have been handed off from location to another without regard to the potential harm to the children of the Church."

Kathleen Hohl, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, said it would abide by the ruling but declined further comment. The documents will not be released for at least 30 days.

In his 59-page ruling, Lichtman struck down archdiocese arguments for keeping the documents private, including claims that the records were protected by third-party privacy rights, the First Amendment and the confidential business rights of the archdiocese.

Attorneys familiar with the case differed about the significance of the ruling regarding hundreds of other clergy abuse cases pending in California.

Raymond Boucher, the lead plaintiffs' attorney for more than 700 abuse claims, said the ruling would set a precedent for the release of other confidential files on priests. Those files can show when the church first learned of allegations of abuse and how the situation was addressed.

"I don't think there's anything that's come out of California that's been this comprehensive and significant," he said.

Attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who won the release of clergy abuse files in Boston, agreed.

"It's a significant step in publicizing such documents and a significant victory for victims," he said.

Attorney Donald Steier, who represents accused priests, said Lichtman's order would not have a significant impact on other California cases. He said the order only applies to the files of priests who are dead and even then, only in cases in which the church has not sought protective orders during litigation.

"Apparently, Milwaukee turned all these files over during the litigation phase without protective orders," Steier said. "The facts that Lichtman relied on won't be applicable in the other cases."

Widera was convicted in Wisconsin in 1973 of sexual perversion. While he was serving probation in that state for the crime, a therapist reported that a mother said her son, a 10-year-old altar boy, had been abused.

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee transferred Widera to California in 1981, knowing his history. He was facing 42 counts of child molestation in the two states when he died in 2003 after leaping from a hotel balcony in Mexico.

Last year, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee agreed to pay eight California victims $13.3 million, in addition to nearly $15 million they received in 2004 from the Diocese of Orange, in California.

Under the earlier settlement, Widera's personnel files from California were made public.

"It's beyond belief that you could take a person who had been arrested and was clearly a danger to any child within his reach and yet continue, without warning, to put him right in the middle of his prey," Boucher said.

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