A judge on Monday ordered the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles to turn over to the court the top-secret files it has kept for decades on dozens of priests accused of sex abuse, bringing the documents closer to public scrutiny.
The order by Superior Court Judge Emilie Elias came five years after more than 550 alleged victims reached a record-breaking, $660 million settlement with the archdiocese that also called for the public unsealing of the confidential files.
Individual priests have been fighting to keep the records closed, but the California Supreme Court declined to intervene earlier this year after a lower court decision in a related case cleared the way for the release of the documents.
Elias gave the archdiocese until Dec. 27 to give her the files on 69 priests to review and then set a hearing for early January to consider arguments from priests who want to keep their files private.
The judge will also hear objections to a previous order that allows the archdiocese to black out the names of some clerics and the church officials who handled the priests. The Los Angeles Times has filed court papers objecting to the order and had an attorney in court Monday.
Holding those officials, including the recently retired Cardinal Roger Mahony, accountable is critical, Ray Boucher, lead plaintiff's attorney, said outside court. He has reviewed the files under seal and called some of the never-before seen documents "explosive."
"These are files showing the hierarchy of the church making a conscious decision to protect itself ... knowing that they were putting children in harm's way," he said. "What we want to do is bring as much sunshine to this issue as we possibly can."
Archdiocese attorney Michael Hennigan said changing the rules for redactions to the files so late in the game would delay the release another six months. The church wants to release the files by Jan. 14, he said.
"We have made what we believe is a good-faith effort to comply," he said.
The archdiocese and plaintiffs are still fighting over several other issues.
Boucher estimates the archdiocese has files on 80 more priests that it is not turning over to the judge. He also said documents on priests who belonged to Roman Catholic religious orders are also missing.
The church says it has no records on another 105 priests who were included in the 2007 global settlement.
The settlement covered more than 245 priests and 550 plaintiffs.
Some plaintiffs' attorneys believe the full contents of the files could 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 five years ago, 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 was sentenced to 10 years in prison for molestation.