Attorneys for people who claim sexual abuse by priests from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles were dealt a legal blow Thursday when a judge prohibited the release of files of priests with only one unsubstantiated claim against them.
The ruling came during a mediation hearing in the lengthy fight over the confidential files kept by the church on the Roman Catholic priests.
Retired Judge Dikran Tevrizian, who has been overseeing meditation about the documents, issued the tentative decision.
For the remaining files, Tevrizian said the names of church employees, including top leaders within the archdiocese, should be redacted _ something plaintiffs bitterly opposed because they believe the files will show evidence of a cover-up at the highest levels.
The order appeared to allow the names of the accused priests themselves to remain in the documents. But attorneys from both sides disagreed on that point after the hearing, and Tevrizian declined to answer questions from reporters.
Tevrizian recommended the release of files for priests convicted of abuse; those found liable or who have admitted guilt in civil court; and those who have died.
The mediation judge will issue a final order within 45 days that will be forwarded to the Los Angeles Superior Court judge overseeing the litigation. She will likely hold another hearing before issuing a final order.
The two sides have been battling since 2007 over what will be released from the files of the 233 accused priests.
The legal dispute began when the archdiocese paid a record $660 million to settle more than 550 cases.
The settlement agreement included provisions for the release of some priest files, but how much of that material will eventually become public has driven the four years of litigation.
Many of the files have never been seen by anyone outside the church, and plaintiffs' attorneys argue that the papers could include internal correspondence, psychiatric records, letters and defrocking paperwork that show the archdiocese was aware of abuse and conspired to cover it up.
The judge, however, reminded attorneys for the alleged victims that the civil lawsuits underlying the settlement have been dismissed, and that getting into the "nitty gritty" of the priests' files could do more harm than good.
Efforts to unearth the confidential documents kept on priests who had escaped criminal and civil actions was akin to vigilantism, he said.
"What you're seeking to do now is ... reach out and utilize the information to either embarrass or to ridicule the church and that's where I have a problem," Tevrizian said. "The case against the church has been settled, they paid the money.
"You can't keep re-litigating this case. You've got to move on," he said.
Ray Boucher, the lead plaintiffs' attorney, said even before the hearing was over that he would appeal Tevrizian's decision.
Without the documents, the alleged victims will never know which church leaders approved transfers of priests accused of abuse or decided to keep the men in ministry after complaints, he argued.
Many of those men who made decisions about abusive priests are still in positions of power, he added.
"I've got to tell you, your honor, I feel like the last four years in fighting over the release of these documents have been a waste of time," Boucher said. "The people in positions of power and authority that allowed this to happen, they're still in positions of authority. As long as we allow that to happen, we coddle the institution."
Archdiocese attorney Michael Hennigan said the church had weathered one of the most difficult times in its history and had come out stronger _ and wiser. He told the judge the archdiocese would abide by the order.
"Overwhelmingly, the allegations that were made against the priests here were true. Cardinal Mahony has just recently said he can never apologize enough," Hennigan said of the recently retired archbishop. "It was more than an embarrassment; it was a moment of crisis for this church."
Despite the ruling, it will likely be months before any files become public.
In addition to the plaintiff attorneys' objections to the ruling, an attorney representing 31 individual priests has filed objections saying any release of his clients' papers would amount to a violation of their constitutional rights, including the right to protection for unreasonable search and seizure.