LOS ANGELES -- Newly released documents detailing sex abuse allegations against Roman Catholic priests could help speed hundreds of lawsuits toward settlement as the Los Angeles Archdiocese faces other potentially damaging developments in the abuse crisis.
The archdiocese posted summaries of the confidential files on 126 priests on its website at midnight Tuesday, though they had not been expected to be made public for several weeks.
The archdiocese said it released the summaries to help victims heal and to make good on a deal made with plaintiffs during nearly three years of settlement talks. An appeals court ruling last month made it possible for the church to post the summaries, said Michael Hennigan, an archdiocesan attorney.
''I think what we have here is a church that is embarrassed, that is contrite, that is ashamed of what happened in the past and is committed to reforming it to the extent that it is humanly possible to do so," he said.
But critics called the release of the summaries a public relations ploy designed to move 560 sex abuse cases closer to a settlement before damaging testimony in the upcoming sex abuse trial of former priest Michael Wempe and the possible release of personnel files to the Los Angeles County district attorney, who is investigating clergy abuse in the nation's largest archdiocese.
The California Appeals Court recently rejected the archdiocese's attempt to keep those files from prosecutors. The archdiocese has appealed to the state Supreme Court and expects to learn within weeks if the high court will hear its case.
''The question for the archdiocese is not money because the archdiocese has enough," said Richard Sipe, an expert witness in some clergy abuse cases and a former Benedictine monk and author. ''The question is the documents, and the truth that's in the documents that may very well send some archdiocesan officials to face indictment."
District Attorney Steve Cooley did not address the latest document release in the civil cases, but said in a statement issued yesterday that his office was ''looking for . . . evidence and investigative leads, not institutional mea culpas" from Cardinal Roger Mahony, head of the archdiocese.
The clergy abuse litigation in Los Angeles is the largest such litigation that remains unsettled nationwide -- and that, too, increases pressure on Mahony and the archdiocese, said Marci Hamilton, a professor at Cardozo Law School at New York City's Yeshiva University who consults with plaintiffs on constitutional law.
''The handwriting is on the wall," she said. ''I think what's going on is the Los Angeles Archdiocese knows that it's either settlement or very extensive trials with extensive damages. They're trying to manage the crisis by releasing these descriptions. Then they have deflated some of the news coverage at that point."
Hennigan said that the church released the documents in good faith and that suggestions to the contrary were ''nonsense."
He said the church fully expects to go to trial in several cases before the archdiocese's 12 insurers agree to a global settlement that some attorneys have speculated could be worth more than $500 million.
Hennigan said attorneys were working with the courts to identify nine cases that will go to trial within the next 12 months.
''I am totally committed to settlement, but we believe at this point we may need some trials and the rush of preparation for trial to get there," he said. ''We will need their enthusiastic participation and so far that enthusiasm has not been as strong as we would like it to be."
The newly released papers summarize confidential personnel files but do not go into some of the wrenching detail that other dioceses -- including Boston, where Cardinal Bernard Law resigned after a clergy abuse scandal erupted -- were forced to make public. A total of 245 priests have been accused of abuse in Los Angeles, Hennigan said, and about 30 remain in the ministry because the allegations against them were not credible. The documents cover cases dating to the 1960.