Shine a light on church sexual abuse

(Los Angeles Times) When hundreds of victims of sexual abuse agreed in 2007 to settle their claims against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles for $660 million, they did so with the understanding that confidential church files that contained the full story of what officials knew, and when they knew it, would become public.

That agreement, however, is at risk of being undermined. A court-appointed referee has ruled that the names of church leaders who are not accused of abusing children should be redacted from the files before those documents are publicly released early next year. Why? The referee argues that including the names of such high-ranking clerics, including Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, would only cause further embarrassment to an institution that has already enacted reforms to prevent future abuses.

Fortunately, the referee’s ruling is not final. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Emilie H. Elias has the last word in the matter. Next month she will hear objections to the referee’s redactions and decide whether the names of vicars, bishops and other priests who handled reports of abuse should be released or be blacked out. The church files are believed to contain internal memos, Vatican correspondence and medical records. (Full disclosure: The Times’ lawyers have filed a motion urging the court to ignore the referee’s proposed redactions on the grounds that the public has a right to know who was aware of abuse allegations and how they responded.)

We hope that Elias will overrule the referee. Whether the archdiocese endures further embarrassment is not the legal standard the court should use given the damage done over several decades to hundreds of children by officials of the church. The only test that should be applied in this case is whether the public’s right to know outweighs the clerics’ right to privacy.

That’s the standard other courts have relied on in similar cases, and the one that led a Massachusetts judge to reject the Boston Archdiocese’s plea for privacy when it sought to withhold entire files. She ruled that it was “difficult to conjure up an argument that would persuade a reasonable person that many of the issues raised in these cases and their underlying documents do not lend themselves to public scrutiny.”

And that’s probably the same reason Louis J. Freeh, the former FBI director who led an independent investigation into the Penn State University sex scandal involving former coach Jerry Sandusky, opted to name senior university officials who were accused of knowing about the abuse or concealing information. Shrouding the names of those in charge serves no public good.

We urge Elias to release the files without redactions. The church’s right to privacy cannot trump the public’s right to know.