The church secret archives contain sensitive records that could pertain to priest misconduct such as their sexual abuse of children, substance abuse and alcoholism, as well as mental health challenges, lawyers said.
Noted canon lawyer Patrick J. Wall said, "Compiling and keeping records of various crimes by clerics, including childhood sexual abuse, is required by the Church’s own rules.”
Wall is a former Catholic priest and Benedictine monk who left the ministry in 1998 after it became apparent he was being used to cover up the sexual abuses of other priests.
“Every diocese including Rome is required to have secret archives,” said Wall, now lead researcher for Jeff Anderson & Associates, a Minnesota-based law firm representing victims of childhood sexual abuse.
Wall is helping dissect defenses that dioceses mount during trial. He co-authored “Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes,” a leading book on the 2,000-year history of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
“In the United States at least, the secret archives were emptied years ago and much of that information has become public via lawsuits,” said another noted canon lawyer, Jennifer Haselberger, who established Canonical Consultation and Services LLC in 2013.
The secret archives can be ripped open during a canonical trial at the Vatican, in the case of Guam Archbishop Anthony S. Apuron, who is accused of sexually abusing and raping altar boys in the 1970s, lawyers said.
They can also be made public during civil trial, they added.
On Guam, clergy sex abuse lawsuits became possible after Gov. Eddie Calvo signed a law on Sept. 23, 2016, lifting the statute of limitations on civil lawsuits for child sexual abuse. The law allows victims to sue their abusers and the institutions that supported their abusers.
This was after local trial court judges started recusing themselves from hearing clergy abuse cases over conflict or potential conflict of interest, including their relationships with either the alleged victims of priest sex abuse or the defendants, including priests and the Archdiocese of Agana.
At least 15 former altar boys have so far filed lawsuits, alleging that Catholic priests sexually abused or raped them. The alleged priest abuses happened in the 1950s through the 1980s.
Haselberger said if there is information about the accusations in the possession of the diocese, the tribunal in a canonical trial will request it “and the diocese will make it available.”
“Most evidence in a canonical trial is in written form,” Haselberger added. “The secret archives, to the extent that they exist, belong to the diocese not to an individual bishop.”
Haselberger previously served as chancellor for canonical affairs at the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis but resigned in April 2013 in protest of the archdiocese's handling of accusations of clergy sexual abuse. She has served on independent review boards and is a noted speaker on issues relating to canon law and the Catholic Church.
Haselberger said in her opinion, secret archives are largely a red herring.
“Technically, all dioceses are required to have one. However, practically, the information that would be kept in a secret archive, such as misconduct reports, is usually integrated into other files -- the personnel file of the priest accused, legal files if there is litigation, correspondence files if there are letters involved,” she said.
‘Closely guarded files’“Every bishop is required to keep secret archives. They all do so, no matter what they say in public. They are not required to disclose the files unless the court orders them to in the litigation process,” said Attorney Michael T. Pfau, who has represented hundreds of clergy sex abuse survivors across the United States.
Pfau has also been working with the Guam-based law office of Dooley Roberts Fowler & Visosky on child sex abuse cases.
“Bishops have closely guarded these files and in most cases will not release them willingly,” said Pfau, who has been named a perpetual “Super Lawyer” by Washington Law and Politics.
He said lawyers can demand the files but in reality, they will need to sue to get them.
“The records you see in a secret archives are obviously records dealing with priests that have molested children. You may see records relating to priests who have alcohol problems, mental health problems. You may see records relating to priests who have personality issues, not just child abuse but historically, the child abuse records go into a secret archives; documents of sensitive nature,” said Pfau, in a phone interview after appearing in a U.S. Senate hearing in Washington, D.C. on child sex trafficking and prostitution related to Backpage.com.
Though not a canon lawyer, Pfau said he has come across church secret archives after years of working on child sexual abuse cases, many of them perpetrated by clergy.
“During the litigation process, you learn where records are kept. It’s sort of divulged over time but largely it’s from lawsuit experience,” he said.
SettlementsPfau has tried three clergy abuse cases in front of a jury. “Sadly, most cases settle after years of litigation and close to trial,” he said.
Coadjutor Archbishop Michael Jude Byrnes said Thursday that out-of-court settlement of the cases filed against the archdiocese always is an option.
Pfau represented, for example, eight women who sued the Seattle Archdiocese over allegations they were molested by one of its priests four decades ago and that church officials knew about the priest’s behaviors.
The Seattle Archdiocese settled with Pfau’s clients for $9.1 million after a damning 1962 psychiatrist’s letter that surfaced in 2015 that was part of the church secret archives . The letter stated that the priest at the center of the lawsuit was a pedophile who needed to “be removed from parish work as soon as possible.”
Pfau, in a report by the Seattle Times, stated at the time that a former archbishop’s involvement in placing the pedophile priest in parishes with full knowledge of his danger to children is truly disturbing.
The Archdiocese of Agana, which is a defendant in all the clergy sex abuse lawsuits filed by former altar boys on Guam, has formed its legal defense team comprised of Guam and U.S.-based lawyers who have experience and expertise in defending archdioceses in clergy abuse cases.
Pfau said on Guam, the task of keeping a secret archives falls on Apuron, who has been the archbishop for nearly 31 years.
Whoever replaces the bishop has access to the secret files, according to Pfau, “whether the replacement is temporary or permanent.”
Since Apuron was placed on leave on June 6, 2016, Pope Francis appointed Savio Hon Tai Fai, directly from the Vatican, to oversee the Catholic Church on Guam. On Oct. 31, 2016, the pope appointed Byrnes, who has the rights to succeed Apuron should Apuron resign, retire or is removed.
Tim Rohr, who has been closely following Catholic church issues on his blog, Junglewatch, said Friday it's not only confidential records of the archdiocese that are raising concerns, but also the regular church files such as baptism and first communion records that are under the purview of the longtime chancellor, Father Adrian Cristobal, who was replaced a few months ago by Archbishop Savio Hon Tai Fai.
Rohr said when it was clear that the Vatican was sending an archbishop from the Vatican to Guam, when Apuron was placed on leave in June 2016, he received information that "files at the archdiocese were destroyed."
"There's a very good chance that some of the files destroyed were part of the confidential archives," Rohr said.
The Concerned Catholics of Guam also raised concerns about the archdiocese's decision to send Cristobal to Canada to study canon law, which the group sees as a reward rather than a punishment for Cristobal. Concerned Catholics pointed at Cristobal's refusal to obey Archbishop Hon's decision last year to reassign him to Umatac.
On Thursday, Archbishop Byrnes said there may have been miscommunication about Cristobal. He said Cristobal is in Canada to finish — not start — his canon law studies, which started before Hon and Byrnes came to Guam. Byrnes said Cristobal is expected to finish his canon law studies in the summer, and is expected to return to Guam.
Other archdioceses across the United States have issued a list of their priests with credible allegations of sex abuse, the Archdiocese of Agana on Guam has not done so.
“Canon law does not require a bishop to release the names of abusive priests,” Pfau said.
Andrew Camacho, vice president of the Concerned Catholics of Guam, said earlier that given the number of former and current priests on Guam so far accused of sex abuses, the local archdiocese should give serious consideration to releasing its own list of priests with credible accusations of sex abuses.