LOS ANGELES (AP) — Secret files kept for decades by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles on priests accused of sexually abusing children could soon become public as a five-year legal battle over the release reaches its endgame.
A judge will hear final objections Monday from accused priests and is also expected to begin hashing out a timeline for releasing thousands of pages of top-secret church documents.
The level of redaction in the documents will also be discussed, with media and plaintiffs' attorneys objecting to a 2010 order that would allow the names of top-level archdiocese leaders who dealt with the priests to be blacked out.
Plaintiffs' attorneys have been trying to gain access to the files since a $660 million settlement in 2007 called for disclosure.
Earlier this year, the California Supreme Court declined to intervene after a lower court ordered the release of some of the files, setting the stage for larger disclosure.
Attorneys for the church and for the plaintiffs said they expected the documents would be made public within a month and no later than February after Monday's critical hearing. Private files on Franciscan friars accused of abuse were released earlier this year after a similar legal fight.
"There are explosive documents that are going to be coming out," said lead plaintiff attorney Ray Boucher, who has seen some of the material while reviewing it with archdiocese attorneys in preparation for the release.
"I don't think there's any question but that the information that will be forthcoming ... is beyond anything the public has seen so far," he said.
The files contain letters between church leaders, including retired Cardinal Roger Mahony, letters to and from the priests themselves, notes and memos about reports of suspected abuse, medical and psychological records and — in some cases — paperwork petitioning for the defrocking of a particular priest by the Vatican.
Michael Hennigan, an archdiocese attorney, said the church is committed to releasing the documents but wants to make sure the privacy rights of priests are protected.
An earlier judge allowed redactions in the documents that will black out the names of members of the church hierarchy who were responsible for dealing with the priests. The current judge overseeing the case has the ability to modify the order, however, and plaintiffs' attorneys have been fighting for more transparency.
On Friday, the Los Angeles Times filed papers with the court seeking full disclosure of the names of church leaders that appear in the documents.
Hennigan has said a change in the order would delay the files' release even more because the church would have to un-redact thousands of pages it has already prepared for release.
Plaintiffs want to see if — and when — archdiocese officials were warned about priests suspected of abuse, who among church leadership was aware, and if the church avoided civil and criminal action by not reporting to police or by shuffling clerics from parish to parish or diocese to diocese.
Some plaintiffs' attorneys believe the full contents of the top-secret files could even now expose some top church leaders to criminal charges, although many documents related to the most notorious abusive priests have already been disclosed through civil litigation and earlier criminal prosecutions.
The cardinal has apologized for his handling of the sex abuse scandal and has acknowledged missteps in how he handled several highly publicized cases, including that of former priest Michael Baker.
Baker told Mahony at a retreat in 1986 that he had molested two young boys, but the cardinal has said he didn't alert anyone because the priest told him the children were illegal immigrants who had returned to Mexico.
That case seriously tarnished Mahony's reputation and prompted a criminal grand jury probe that never resulted in charges.
When the Los Angeles archdiocese settled its abuse cases in 2007, lead plaintiff attorney Boucher estimated that Baker's conduct accounted for $40 million of the total.
The former priest was arrested in 2006 as he returned from a vacation in Thailand and later sentenced to 10 years in prison for molestation.