At a hearing on Tuesday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Emilie Elias set a date for the public release of secret files kept by local orders of the Catholic Church on dozens of priests accused of sex abuse crimes. The release of the files was included as part of a settlement with the victims, but no date had been mandated. Religious orders such as the Salesians, Vincentians, and Marinists will start opening their files over the summer, possibly as soon as three weeks, with September being the final deadline. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles has already turned over 12,00 pages of such documents.
In September, 2011, the Rolling Stone discussed the existence of secret records in its coverage of a trial of five priests from the Philadelphia archdiocese. Four of the priests were accused of sex abuse, but one was not. That fifth priest, Monsignor William Lynn, was the custodian of the “Secret Archives files” and was accused of being responsible for covering up the crimes of the archdiocese’s priests. Lynn was the first church official to be charged for the church’s widespread cover-up.
As reported in the Rolling Stone at the time:
“Every Catholic diocese has Secret Archives files – it’s mandated by canon law as a repository for complaints against priests so scandalous that they must be kept out of the regular personnel files. Few outsiders know the secret archives exist, and only the most trusted clergy have access to them. In Philadelphia, the sole keyholders were the cardinal and his closest aides.”
The news of the archives, which were accumulated over centuries and hold much information about a wide range of priestly crimes, started leaking out in the late 1980s when a priest tipped off the attorney for one victim. Jeff Anderson of Minneapolis received information that the local diocese possessed records containing evidence of his client’s molestation.
The fact that the church retained this treasure trove of documents, even as revelation after revelation of sexual abuse became public over the last 30 years, is mind-boggling proof of the church’s belief in its own invulnerability. Some priests warned that incriminating documents should be destroyed, but the warnings fell on deaf ears.
Father Michael Wempe, after completing treatment as a pedophile in the mid-80s, asked the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to destroy treatment records that included his confession to molesting young boys so that the information wouldn’t fall into law enforcement’s hands. Not only did church officials ignore his and other warnings, but they added accusations from new victims to Wempe’s file until, when it was subpoenaed by prosecutors, it was used as evidence to convict the priest of molestation in 2006 and finally earned him a prison sentence. Ultimately, the thick, well-kept files, covering multiple crimes, also brought about a fall from grace for Cardinal Roger Mahony, former Archbishop of Los Angeles, as he was stripped of his duties by his successor.
There may be some small comfort for victims in witnessing that the same bureaucracy that fiercely protected predatory priests has also contributed mightily to their downfall. But the bigger gratification will come through validation of their pain and their memories, long denied, that will emerge with the full release this summer of the “Secret Archives”.
The remaining question is, how many more of these archives, around the country and around the world, still await a much-needed public examination?