Lawyers Spar over Catholic Records Access

By Michael R. Blood
The Associated Press, carried in Monterey County Herald
August 5, 2006

LOS ANGELES - Lawyers sparred in court Friday over access to decades of records held by the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese, a dispute whose outcome could affect hundreds of pending molestation cases involving current and former Southern California priests.

The documents, personnel files and other materials at issue are being sought in the first three of nearly 600 sexual-abuse lawsuits filed against the archdiocese. The trials are scheduled to begin in November.

Donald Woods, an archdiocese attorney, told Superior Court Judge Haley J. Fromholz that lawyers representing accusers wanted the court's blessing to go "fishing" through 75 years of church archives, including everything from bishops' desk calendars to archdiocese newspapers and parish bulletins.

"This is absurd," Woods said at one point, asking how years of church newspapers could be relevant to the cases. He argued that records sought by the attorneys should be connected to alleged abuse issues, but "they are using this as a hook to say every record" should be disclosed, a request so vast it could involve information on a host of priests, teachers and other employees.

Attorneys for alleged molestation victims said they needed access to a broad range of records, from internal psychiatric reports on priests to appointment calendars and diaries, which they said could reveal patterns of abuse by priests or other information essential to the cases.

Church officials "are saying, 'We are going to pick and choose,"' lawyer Katherine Freberg told Fromholz. Outside court, she said the archdiocese had turned over only a "few innocuous files" in months of negotiations over the documents.

Plaintiffs say the church sent pedophile priests off to treatment, then returned them to ministry without warning parishioners or alerting authorities. Church officials say they originally thought the priests could be cured through treatment.

Access to church records has been a long-standing issue. Last year, the state Supreme Court declined to overturn a lower court ruling that forced Cardinal Roger Mahony to turn over to prosecutors private personnel files of two former priests accused of sexual molestation. The U.S. Supreme Court in April declined to hear the archdiocese's appeal.

Last week, in a tentative ruling, Fromholz indicated that the accusers' lawyers would get access to much of the information they are seeking.

In June, the judge ruled that many of the records in lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by priests will remain secret before trial. The information includes the names of church employees who are not defendants or witnesses, as well as general background information and medical and financial records of individual plaintiffs and defendants.


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