In what victims claim was a major legal victory, a judge ordered Roman Catholic bishops Friday to turn over secret personnel files on 40 priests accused in lawsuits of molesting children in Northern California.
The documents could shed light on how the church responded to allegations of abuse.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ronald M. Sabraw became the first judge in California to publicly reject the church’s argument that the files reflect a specially protected relationship between bishops and priests.
Sabraw’s sweeping order applies to “all documents and information wherever located and however labeled.”
His ruling sets the framework for the exchange of evidence in 150 civil suits pending against eight Roman Catholic dioceses north of Santa Barbara County. It does not govern the Southern California cases but legal experts say it could influence other judges asked to rule on similar secrecy issues.
At a hearing Friday, Sabraw ordered diocesan officials to turn over the files to plaintiffs lawyers by Sept. 10. The files will not become public immediately. The judge explained his decisions in a 16-page ruling.
“The room for playing games has been substantially reduced,” said Stockton, Calif., attorney Laurence Drivon, who represents 450 people suing the church for childhood sexual abuse in California. He believes the church is dragging its feet with “legal theories that the courts are throwing out one after another.”
Attorney Stephen A. McFeely, who represents the Diocese of Oakland, said Sabraw’s ruling is “not earth-shattering.” He said it’s merely part of the civil litigation process, and other judges in Northern California have made similar rulings on individual cases.
“We are not going to be turning over privileged documents,” he said, referring to those papers the judge may decide should remain confidential.
Sabraw ruled, for example, that the church may withhold communications with a “psychotherapist,” as defined by state law, hired to evaluate or treat a priest, unless such communications served as a warning that the priest was likely to abuse children in the future.
In the weeks he has presided over the clergy abuse cases, Sabraw, who is based in Oakland, has made significant legal rulings. He tentatively upheld the constitutionality of the state law resulting in more than 800 lawsuits being filed against the Catholic Church last year. The law temporarily lifted the statute of limitations – the legal deadline for filing lawsuits – in childhood sexual abuse cases so alleged victims could sue for decades-old abuse.
Sabraw rejected some of the church’s key defenses.
“The clergy-penitent privilege and the First Amendment right to freedom of religion are not implicated by the disclosure of information in the personnel files and similar documents concerning clergy,” the judge ruled.
Sabraw also dismissed the privacy defense. He ruled that a priest’s right to privacy is outweighed by the relevance of personnel documents gathered during the period of alleged abuse.
Sabraw ruled that a priest can assert a constitutional right to privacy on some statements the priest might have made regarding “confidential theological or spiritual beliefs.” As an example, the court said, “the sincerity of a person’s religious calling to work with children is private, but his or her participation in youth activities is not private.”