Catholic religious order abuse files may go public

In this April 5, 2013 photo made available Saturday, April 6, 2013 by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis, left, meets with Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, at the Vatican. Francis directed the Vatican to act decisively on clergy sex abuse cases and punish pedophile priests, saying the Catholic Church's "credibility" was on the line.

Published: Tuesday, April 16, 2013 at 8:40 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 16, 2013 at 8:40 a.m.

LOS ANGELES — Less than three months after the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles released the files of priests accused of sex abuse, attorneys for alleged victims are back in court seeking similar records kept by more than a dozen religious orders.

A hearing Tuesday will begin the process of determining if — and in what form — the records kept by religious orders such as the Jesuits, Vincentians, Salesians and Dominicans, among others, will be made public.

The continued legal battle comes after the Los Angeles archdiocese unsealed under court order the files it kept over the years on 120 of its priests who have been accused of sex abuse in civil lawsuits. The church agreed as part of a $660 million settlement to release the documents, but attorneys for individual priests fought for five years to keep them under wraps, citing privacy issues.

A number of religious orders signed off on the settlement agreement and contributed significant amounts to it because up to one-third of the accused priests belonged to religious orders, said J. Michael Hennigan, an archdiocese attorney representing the interests of the orders at the hearing.

Those orders assigned priests to work in the archdiocese but are separate entities with their own hierarchy and disciplinary processes, he said.

Ray Boucher, a coordinating attorney for the plaintiffs, said the records kept on accused priests by the religious orders are critical to understanding the scope of the sex abuse scandal and the internal dynamics that contributed to it.

In many instances, the archdiocese file on a religious order priest is empty or one-sided and missing records that would show whether the order already knew of the priest's behavior and how they ultimately handled him, he said.

Some of the orders have also reached separate settlements with alleged victims, including the Franciscans.

Franciscan files released last year revealed a pervasive culture of abuse over generations at a Santa Barbara seminary dedicated to training future Franciscans. The file included a rarely seen "sexual history" written by one priest for a therapy session that detailed how he formed a boys' choir and selected his victims from among its ranks.

"These orders ... have really flown under the radar," Boucher said.

Religious orders whose files will be discussed at the hearing include small groups such as the Piarist Fathers and larger, more well-known organizations such as the Jesuits and Dominicans.

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