LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The departure of a key figure in a record $660 million clergy sexual abuse settlement has endangered part of the deal that some plaintiffs consider more important than the money: the promise by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles to allow the release of accused priests' confidential files.
More than a year after the agreement was announced, the sudden recusal of a retired judge unanimously selected to review the priests' files has threatened to undo the fragile deal and could send both sides back to court for months. At the same time, an attorney who has been paid by the church to defend accused clergy is fighting to keep those records sealed - and plaintiffs accuse the archdiocese of using him as their proxy.
The developments have been gut-wrenching for alleged victims, who believe the church papers will contain evidence of criminal wrongdoing by church leaders. The Los Angeles settlement - by far the nation's largest - was supposed to close the book on the nationwide church abuse crisis that erupted in Boston in 2002.
"Many of us survivors went to litigation to produce the documents," said Esther Miller, one of more than 500 plaintiffs included in last year's agreement. "People want to move on and heal and they still have our feet to the fire. The money did nothing. It just pays for expensive therapy sessions."
The priest personnel files in question contain letters, handwritten notes and reports from doctors and psychologists - and the district attorney has said he will inspect them for evidence of crimes once they are public.
When the Diocese of Orange released tens of thousands of pages of similar files in 2005, they showed that two officials who covered up for molester priests years ago remained in top church positions. Another 800 pages that came out in Wisconsin this year showed the church knew of credible molestation reports against a priest but didn't remove him.
Recent settlements in Davenport, Iowa and Chicago also call for the release of the private documents and a similar legal battle is under way in Portland, Ore.
"The files and these documents implicate the hierarchy, right on down the line," said Jeff Anderson, a plaintiffs' attorney. "That's why we've had a long, titanic struggle for five years. There's long-kept secrets."
Under a settlement announced in July 2007, the Los Angeles archdiocese promised to release the priest personnel files to the court, which would then appoint retired state Supreme Court Justice Edward A. Panelli to review each one. Panelli, whose name was written into the settlement agreement as the mediator, would decide which documents could be released and which couldn't - and none of his rulings could be appealed.
But Panelli suddenly recused himself this summer because he received an unspecified honor from the Roman Catholic church, plaintiff attorney Ray Boucher said. Panelli declined an interview request through his assistant and archdiocese attorney Michael Hennigan said he didn't know why Panelli recused himself.
Now an archdiocese attorney says if both sides can't agree on a replacement, the fight over the files could move back to state court, where both sides could appeal any order over the release of the papers.
Hennigan said he will cooperate with a search for a new justice, but isn't sure both sides can agree on anyone but Panelli.
"That is a very special person that can gather that kind of respect from both sides," he said. "Will we be able to find somebody who fits that description, where all ... people have so much confidence in him that they will waive rights of appeal? I don't know."
Plaintiff attorneys expected to file an application to begin that process this week and said they would not let the church go back on its promise. Boucher, the plaintiffs' attorney, said if the church uses Panelli's recusal to dodge document release he might file a lawsuit.
Issues related to the settlement will be discussed at a hearing Friday, he said.
"You really begin to wonder whether or not the archdiocese was acting in good faith," Boucher said. "This could end up in another 10 years of litigation. Luckily the clients have been paid, but in terms of fighting this issue, I'm not going to give up."
Boucher and plaintiffs are also angry that an attorney for nearly three dozen priests is fighting to keep the files sealed - and they believe the church is paying his bills.
Attorney Donald Steier argued in court papers filed in January that his clients never agreed to a process that could expose their private records. He also argued that the court no longer has jurisdiction to order the files' release because the lawsuits have been settled.
"We have very strong feelings about trying to create an exception to the constitutional right of privacy," said Steier, who represents 31 priests. "My clients have never agreed to any release of any private files. We never agreed, and the settlement went through in any event."
Several priests declined to comment when reached by The Associated Press.
But defrocked priest George Rucker, 87, accused of molestation by 38 people but never convicted, said he worries about what will happen if his file becomes public.
"My attorney told me about that, they already have tried to do that twice," Rucker said from his room at the Nazareth House, a Catholic nursing home in Los Angeles. "I just leave it in the hands of God."
Steier declined to say who was paying him for his current work on behalf of priests and a spokesman for the archdiocese, Tod Tamberg, declined to comment.
Hennigan, the archdiocese attorney, said the church was not paying Steier now but paid the legal fees before the settlement of diocesan priests who had not been criminally convicted. He said it was possible the church could continue those payments going forward.
"We made a policy decision that that was required, based on the labor code plus the general relationship between priests and the archdiocese," Hennigan said of the earlier payments. "These are priests and they typically don't have a lot of resources."
The archdiocese spent nearly $32 million on legal fees and expenses associated with the settlement in the 2006 and 2007 fiscal years, according to its most recent financial statement.
For their part, alleged victims say the healing that began last summer has been put on hold because of the delays and legal wrangling. Miller, 49, said she has resumed taking psychological medication and goes to therapy three times a week.
"People want us to move on, they say, 'Oh, you got that money. Why can't you move on?'" she said. "But all we had was our truth."