The Archdiocese of Los Angeles published summaries yesterday of its confidential files on 126 clergymen accused of sexually abusing children, chronicling its failure for decades to act on complaints from parents, notify police or warn parishioners in the nation's largest Roman Catholic diocese.
"What we have here is a church that is embarrassed, that is contrite, that is ashamed of what happened in the past and is committed to reforming it to the extent that it is humanly possible to do so," said J. Michael Hennigan, lead attorney for the archdiocese.
The summaries read like matter-of-fact resumes, numbing lists of parishes served and promotions received.
But they are interspersed with brief, but chilling, notations. In 1977, a mother wrote to say that Father George Miller molested her son on a fishing trip. In 1986, Father Michael S. Baker took Cardinal Roger Mahony aside at a retreat and admitted to a "relationship" with two boys. In 2002, two women said Father Gerald Plesetz was the father of their children.
The archdiocese published the summaries on its Web site, www.la-archdiocese.org, at midnight Tuesday. They were compiled in connection with settlement negotiations over more than 560 sex abuse lawsuits, which could cost the archdiocese more than $500 million, according to lawyers on both sides.
The summaries do not contain anything close to the level of graphic detail that Catholic dioceses in Boston; Philadelphia; Manchester, N.H.; and several other cities have been forced to provide as a result of grand jury investigations into sex abuse.
Church officials and advocates for abuse victims gave widely divergent interpretations of the archdiocese's reasons for releasing the documents, and of the documents themselves.
Hennigan, representing Mahony, told reporters in a conference call that the archdiocese had been fighting for months for permission from the courts to release the records, despite objections from lawyers for some of the accused priests. The California Court of Appeal finally granted approval Sept. 22, he said.
"Cardinal Mahony has wanted to be as transparent -- his word -- as possible about what happened, when it happened, what we knew, when we knew it and what we did about it," Hennigan said.
The lesson to be learned from the documents, Hennigan said, is that church leaders from the 1950s to the present were "not terribly far behind, nor ahead" of society as a whole in understanding pedophilia.
"What you see in these files is a group of people dealing with the problem as best as they could, but that they did not understand well enough, and gradually understanding how to deal with it and ultimately coming to terms with it, we think, very effectively," he said. "Unfortunately, there are many, many victims of the process and its slowness. We regret that."
Hennigan contended that until recently, the parents of children who were molested "typically did not want" the church to report incidents to the police, for fear that the children's names would become known and they would "go through life with that tattoo."
He acknowledged that until about three years ago, the archdiocese had a policy against informing parishioners that their priest had been accused of abuse, even when the priest had been sent away for psychological treatment.
But Hennigan said that the documents "do not show a coverup. They do not show transfers to hide the problem. They do not show transfers between and among parishes without [medical] intervention that was perceived at the time to be effective."
Los Angeles lawyer Raymond Boucher, who represents the plaintiffs in more than 300 lawsuits against the church, said the publication of the documents was not as voluntary as the archdiocese asserted. He said the plaintiffs had made the release of priests' personnel files a precondition for entering into settlement talks.
Because those negotiations have stalled, both sides are moving to prepare for nine initial trials next year, which would air a number of priests' files in open court. The Los Angeles district attorney is also seeking access to the archdiocese's confidential records for a criminal investigation.
Boucher added that he is far from satisfied with the summaries, which he said were heavily edited. He said that allegations of sexual misconduct with minors have been made against 245 current and former Los Angeles priests, and that the summaries amount to nothing more than a "table of contents" to about half of those files.
"This cardinal and the archdiocese doesn't intend to ever let the public see just how deep and pervasive their participation was, and they're hoping that these kinds of public relations stunts will dumb down the demand for full and complete transparency," Boucher said.
One of Boucher's clients, Joe Beckman, 45, said that when he was 14 years old in 1974, his father met with Cardinal Timothy Manning to complain that Joe had been molested by his choir director, the Rev. Richard T. Coughlin. There is no mention of that meeting in Coughlin's summary.
"I think they're trying to let the damaging information out a little bit at a time," Beckman said.