Nearly 10,000 pages of previously sealed Catholic church documents have been made public and showed that the Diocese of San Diego long knew about abusive priests, some of whom were shuffled from parish to parish despite credible complaints against them.
After a three-year legal battle over the diocese's internal records, a retired San Diego Superior Court judge ruled late Friday that they could be made public. Attorneys for 144 people claiming sex abuse made the papers public Sunday.
The records are from the personnel files of 48 priests who were either credibly accused or convicted of sexual abuse or were named in a civil lawsuit. They include a decades-old case in which a priest under police investigation was allowed to leave the U.S. after the diocese intervened.
The plaintiffs settled with the diocese in 2007 for nearly $200 million, but the agreement stipulated that an independent judge would review the priests' sealed personnel records and determine what could be made public.
The files show what the diocese knew about abusive priests, starting decades before any allegations became public, and that some church leaders moved priests around or overseas despite credible complaints against them.
"We encourage all Catholics, all members of the community, to look for these documents," attorney Anthony DeMarco said at a news conference.
"These documents demonstrate years and years and decades of concerted action that has allowed this community's children to be victimized, and it is not until the community looks at these documents that this cycle is ever going to be ended."
Donna Daly, a spokeswoman for the Diocese of San Diego, did not immediately return a call on Sunday and no one answered at the main diocese number. Maria Roberts, an attorney for the diocese, did not immediately respond to a message left with her office on Sunday.
At least one of the priests, Gustavo Benson, is still in active ministry in the Diocese of Ensenada in Mexico, DeMarco said. In a 2002 interview with The Press-Enterprise of Riverside, Benson said he ministered to children there but had not done anything inappropriate. It wasn't immediately known what Benson's position at the diocese is now.
A phone message left Sunday night at the office of the Archbishop of Tijuana who oversees the Ensenada diocese was not immediately returned.
In at least one instance, the files included documented abuse by a priest whose name had not before surfaced in any lawsuit or criminal case, the Rev. Luis Eugene de Francisco, who was originally from Colombia.
Police investigated de Francisco for allegedly abusing children, but the diocese convinced authorities to drop the case if the priest would return immediately to his Colombian diocese and never return to the U.S.
"In early August 1963, Father was placed under arrest by the civil police of the City of San Diego for violation of the State Penal Code," then-Bishop Charles F. Buddy wrote the Colombian bishop in the Diocese of Cali.
"At that time, arrangements were made between this Chancery and the civil authorities of San Diego in which, if Father left the United States with the promise never to return, the charges against Father would be set aside by Civil Law."
Buddy wrote that de Francisco had crossed the border at Tijuana, Mexico, and was "directed to return directly to the Diocese of Cali."
DeMarco said the papers in the files were the first time attorneys became aware of de Francisco. No one filed a lawsuit, the church never revealed the complaints and it's unclear what happened to the priest or if he is still alive, he said.
Church files indicate he also served in Florida and Texas before arriving in the San Diego diocese, where he worked with migrant workers in the Coachella Valley about 150 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
"You have won a reputation as a zealous worker and devoted to the poor," Bishop Buddy wrote the priest in a December 1962 letter.
"On the other hand, the 'incidents' at Indio were more serious than first presented to me, especially inasmuch as the police have made a record of them. You know how word gets around, so that you be certain that the police here will be on your trail. ... It will be more prudent and more secure for you to return to your own diocese."
Attorneys are still trying for the release of an additional 2,000 pages of documents.
The release of records is biggest so far in a U.S. church case, said Terry McKiernan, founder of the website Bishop Accountability.org.
The website collects and publishes internal church papers that have been released as the result of litigation on clergy abuse nationwide.
"I think as we absorb this, it will shed a lot of light on these issues. It's amazingly rich," McKiernan said.
"These documents are providing a window into the California experience that we haven't had before."