Priest files in sex abuse lawsuits to be released

Victims' attorneys will get first look

San Diego Union-Tribune/February 13, 2009

San Diego - The Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego said yesterday it will begin to release files of priests accused of molesting parishioners over decades, but a lawyer for many of the victims said the information will not be immediately public.

The files from the diocese will be released Sunday, diocese Chancellor Rodrigo Valdivia said in a statement. That will begin a complicated, and potentially lengthy, process of making clergy members' records publicly available.

The files will be released via a secure Web site to lawyers for the plaintiffs who filed more than 120 suits against the diocese, beginning in 2003.

Retired Judge William C. Pate is overseeing the production of the files and has laid out a process that allows living priests to challenge release of any or all information about them, said Irwin Zalkin, a lawyer who represented scores of San Diego abuse claimants.

Zalkin said the diocese also is arguing that many documents on clergy should remain private and has laid out what those records are in a separate log for Pate.

The judge will review those documents and the requests for privilege and decide how many - if any - should be released.

Zalkin estimated it could be five or six months before all claims to keep the files secret are resolved and the documents made more widely available.

He said his expectations about what would be in the documents was not high.

"We'll see what they have," he said. "But the reality is there was a huge purging of these files and shredding of documents in the early 1990s."

Zalkin said a former chancellor of the diocese testified that many church files were destroyed at that time.

Valdivia said in a statement that the files are being produced according to the court order, which Zalkin said both sides have been hashing out for some time. Valdivia also said the release "is a step toward final completion of a global settlement agreement which was reached with the victims in September 2007."

A spokeswoman for a national advocacy group for victims of abuse by Catholic clergy also said the files might not contain many details.

"Much information about predator priests and those who shield them never makes it into a church file," said Barbara Dorris of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

In all there are about 60 priests who had served in the diocese since the 1950s whose files could be included, Zalkin said.

The announcement by the diocese marks another step in the long litigation surrounding the sexual abuse scandal in San Diego.

In September 2007 the diocese agreed to settle the lawsuits filed against it for $198 million. Part of the settlement, one that the victims and their lawyers insisted on, required the diocese to release records of the accused priests.

The diocese in San Diego, and others around the country, were accused of covering up abuse by clergy by not informing authorities and shuttling problem priests around the diocese.

The settlement was hammered out with U.S. Magistrate Judge Leo Papas while the diocese was in a contentious bankruptcy proceeding. The diocese, on the eve of the first lawsuit going to trial in February 2007, filed for bankruptcy protection in federal court.

But the eight months in bankruptcy proceedings did not go well for the diocese. Reports outlining all diocesan assets were deemed incomplete and had to be amended four times, and the judge overseeing the case eventually appointed a forensic accountant to look over the diocese's books.

That report concluded the diocese was reporting inaccurate values for its extensive property holdings and was not properly accounting for all its money.

The diocese paid its share of the settlement - other religious orders were involved to a smaller extent - in March 2008. The average payout amounted to $1.3 million for each plaintiff.

Dorris of SNAP said releasing information about what church officials knew and the steps they took in dealing with priests named in claims was vitally important to the plaintiffs.

She said it was "important and healing when any bit of information about the church's ongoing clergy sex abuse and concealment scandal finally sees the light of day."

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