Wednesday, June 20, 2007

LA Files, LA Trials

As what's been termed a "six-month courthouse marathon" of 15 civil trials against the US' largest local church looms in the coming weeks, a Los Angeles court on Monday green-lighted the release of the personnel files of clergy, even those who "were never charged with a crime and legal claims against them were not proven."
"The rights of privacy must give way to the state's interest in protecting its children from sexual abuse," Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Peter D. Lichtman said in his 22-page ruling.

The decision concerns a small number of Franciscan friars, who will have an opportunity to object to disclosure of specific documents before the files are opened.

Nevertheless, the ruling could have dramatic ramifications on more than 500 legal claims pending against the Los Angeles Archdiocese, which is accused of failing to protect parishioners from sexual victimization over the last 60 years....

Robert G. Howie, an attorney for the friars, said the ruling misinterpreted California law on privacy rights, which he said were stronger than in other states.

"You've got officials in Washington who want to do everything they can do to prevent another 9/11. Does that mean they can conduct wiretaps whenever they want to?" Howie asked.

But 1st Amendment lawyers praised the judge's decision.

"The court properly balanced the constitutional right to privacy against the right of the public to protect its children and safeguard itself against future harm, and it found that the public's right to know overwhelmingly won out," said Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn.

The ruling came in the cases of 10 current and former Franciscans who were accused of fondling, masturbating, orally copulating and sodomizing boys and girls for 30 years starting in the 1950s.

Most of the allegations arose at St. Anthony's Seminary in Santa Barbara, which closed in 1987.

The church in March 2006 agreed to pay more than $28 million to 25 accusers. The victims asked Lichtman to release the files.

Lawyers for the Franciscan friars objected, contending that because the claims had been settled, Lichtman had no authority to order the files opened. In 2005, Lichtman released more than 10,000 pages from the personnel files of 15 priests and teachers as part of a court-approved $100-million settlement between the Diocese of Orange and 90 alleged molestation victims.

But the judge said at the time that he was "powerless" to pry open files on eight other priests and teachers who objected because the lawsuits had been settled.

On Monday, however, in a 22-page ruling, Lichtman stated flatly that California's "compelling interest in protecting children from harm is present regardless of the stage of the litigation."

"To answer any of the above questions in the affirmative would be to punish the alleged victims for seeking an early resolution of the cases and needlessly prolong matters through trial," Lichtman ruled. "It would provide the alleged perpetrators and enablers with a safe haven for settlement. The defendants' conduct would be forever hidden and safe from scrutiny."

Lichtman noted that all of the priests whose dossiers were in question had admitted abuse or "show[n] dangerous propensities toward youth."
As for the archdiocese itself, the first 15 civil trials (of an unsettled 535 cases) are scheduled to begin on 9 July.
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge overseeing the cases recently ruled that Cardinal Roger Mahony must testify in one of those cases, and attorneys for plaintiffs want to call him as a witness in many more.

The same judge also cleared the way for four alleged victims to seek punitive damages from the archdiocese — something that could open the church to tens of millions of dollars in payouts if the ruling is expanded to other cases.

Legal experts said the archdiocese's financial exposure and the stress of preparing for so many trials at once could mean a settlement before jury selection.

Mahony recently told parishioners in an open letter that the archdiocese will sell its high-rise administrative building and is considering the sale of about 50 other nonessential church properties to raise funds.

"I'm sure they're going to settle these cases. You just can't go to trial on that many cases," said Pamela Hayes, an attorney who served on the National Lay Review Board, a panel formed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to study the priest abuse scandal.

Archdiocese attorney Michael Hennigan said the archdiocese was eager to settle as soon as possible but the complexity of the situation could make that difficult.

"We work on settlements every day and I've been hoping for a settlement for five years," he said. "It would be nice if we could get it done before these trials, but I'm not sure we can."

The archdiocese last December reached a $60 million settlement with 45 victims whose claims dated from before the mid-1950s and after 1987 — periods when the archdiocese had little or no sexual abuse insurance. Several religious orders in California have also reached multimillion-dollar settlements in recent months, including the Carmelites, the Franciscans and the Jesuits.

That leaves more than 500 lawsuits pending in Los Angeles and plaintiff's attorneys plan to go to court on each one unless a settlement is reached, said Ray Boucher, the lead plaintiff's attorney. Boucher said he hoped that a few large jury verdicts in the first batch of trials would motivate the church's insurers — who have been a longtime stumbling block — to cooperate more.

"We've got trials set virtually every three weeks between now and January," he said. "We're going to be going at a breakneck speed. It's really going to be a hard, fast, furious six months."

Many of the cases will be presented as "serial cases," in which the alleged victims of one priest group their claims before the same jury. Some trials will involve as many as 40 alleged victims at once, Boucher said.

The first case set for trial involves the late Rev. Clinton Hagenbach, who was accused of abusing more than a dozen people at two parishes in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 2002, Mahony paid $1.5 million to one of Hagenbach's victims.