Judge rules that priest files must be released
LOSANGELES - A judge Tuesday ordered the Roman Catholic Church to releaseinsurance records and confidential files related to a notorious priestwho had been convicted of molestation before being transferred toCalifornia.
Superior Court Judge Peter D. Lichtman ordered theArchdiocese of Milwaukee to make public 3,000 pages of insurancerecords and hundreds of pages from the secret disciplinary files ofSiegfried Widera.
Lichtman wrote that Widera's files prove that"priests with known sexual proclivities have been handed off fromlocation to another without regard to the potential harm to thechildren of the Church."
Kathleen Hohl, a spokeswoman for theArchdiocese of Milwaukee, said it would abide by the ruling butdeclined further comment. The documents will not be released for atleast 30 days.
In his 59-page ruling, Lichtman struck downarchdiocese arguments for keeping the documents private, includingclaims that the records were protected by third-party privacy rights,the First Amendment and the confidential business rights of thearchdiocese.
Attorneys familiar with the case differed aboutthe significance of the ruling regarding hundreds of other clergy abusecases pending in California.
Raymond Boucher, the leadplaintiffs' attorney for more than 700 abuse claims, said the rulingwould set a precedent for the release of other confidential files onpriests. Those files can show when the church first learned ofallegations of abuse and how the situation was addressed.
"I don't think there's anything that's come out of California that's been this comprehensive and significant," he said.
Attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who won the release of clergy abuse files in Boston, agreed.
"It's a significant step in publicizing such documents and a significant victory for victims," he said.
Attorney Donald Steier, who represents accused priests, said Lichtman'sorder would not have a significant impact on other California cases. Hesaid the order only applies to the files of priests who are dead andeven then, only in cases in which the church has not sought protectiveorders during litigation.
"Apparently, Milwaukee turned allthese files over during the litigation phase without protectiveorders," Steier said. "The facts that Lichtman relied on won't beapplicable in the other cases."
Widera was convicted inWisconsin in 1973 of sexual perversion. While he was serving probationin that state for the crime, a therapist reported that a mother saidher son, a 10-year-old altar boy, had been abused.
TheArchdiocese of Milwaukee transferred Widera to California in 1981,knowing his history. He was facing 42 counts of child molestation inthe two states when he died in 2003 after leaping from a hotel balconyin Mexico.
Last year, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee agreed topay eight California victims $13.3 million, in addition to nearly $15million they received in 2004 from the Diocese of Orange, in California.
Under the earlier settlement, Widera's personnel files from California were made public.
"It's beyond belief that you could take a person who had been arrestedand was clearly a danger to any child within his reach and yetcontinue, without warning, to put him right in the middle of his prey,"Boucher said.
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