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Originally published Tuesday, April 16, 2013 at 7:00 AM

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Catholic religious order abuse files may go public

Less than three months after the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles released the files of priests accused of sex abuse, attorneys for victims are back in court seeking similar records kept by more than a dozen religious orders.

Associated Press

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LOS ANGELES —

Less than three months after the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles released the files of priests accused of sex abuse, attorneys for victims are back in court seeking similar records kept by more than a dozen religious orders.

A hearing Tuesday began the process of determining if - and in what form - the records kept by religious orders such as the Jesuits, Vincentians, Salesians and Dominicans, among others, will be made public.

Attorneys for several orders said they weren't ready to release any files and questioned whether they were even obligated to do so under a $660 million settlement signed in 2007 with more than 500 alleged victims of priest molestation.

A judge asked all the orders to submit their positions in advance of a May 28 hearing.

The continued legal battle comes after the Los Angeles archdiocese unsealed under court order the files it kept over the years on 120 of its priests who have been accused of sex abuse in civil lawsuits. The church agreed as part of the 2007 settlement to release the documents, but attorneys for individual priests fought for five years to keep them under wraps, citing privacy issues.

A number of religious orders signed off on the settlement agreement and contributed significant amounts to it because up to one-third of the named priests belonged to religious orders, said J. Michael Hennigan, an archdiocese attorney coordinating the interests of the many religious order attorneys.

Those orders assigned priests to work in the archdiocese but are separate entities with their own hierarchy and disciplinary processes, he said.

Ray Boucher, a coordinating attorney for the plaintiffs, said the records kept on accused priests by the religious orders are critical to understanding the scope of the sex abuse scandal and the internal dynamics that contributed to it.

In many instances, the archdiocese file on a religious order priest is empty or missing records that would show whether the order already knew of the priest's behavior and how they ultimately handled him, he said.

Five of the orders have also reached separate settlements with alleged victims, further complicating the dispute over whether they are obligated to make their priests' confidential papers public.

Donald Steier, an attorney representing the Passionists, the Brothers of St. Patrick and the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity, said he isn't sure his clients agreed to release any files in the 2007 settlement agreement.

"This is the first time this has come up in five years, so it's going to take quite some time to find out what was agreed to," said Steier, who also represented individual priests in the 2007 settlement.

Leila Nourani, an attorney for the Salesians, said she wasn't sure her clients agreed to release any confidential priest files either.

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