After the files became known to prosecutors and plaintiff‘s lawyers, the American justice system has pried open the doors to an archive long kept sealed. Thousands of additional pages are set to become public in coming months, as more than a dozen Catholic orders — Salesians, Claretians, Vincentians and others — prepare to bare their own secrets pursuant to agreements with victims. L.A. County Superior Court Judge Emilie Elias could set the date for their release at a hearing Tuesday.
For some, the revelations were damning. For others, they offered validation for dark, private memories.
The files were never meant to go beyond church walls.
The earliest mention of the secret archives in church history dates to the 1700s, in an edict on marriage issued by Pope Benedict XIV. The archives were to bear witness to “marriages of conscience” — unions that may be banned under civil law or otherwise scandalous, but celebrated by a priest in secrecy.
In the 20th century, when church law regulating the archives were written, Canon 489 prescribed that there was to be “a safe or cabinet, completely closed and locked, which cannot be removed” to which only the bishop would hold the key.
Safeguarding the files was not taken lightly. One scholar suggested in 1954 that files could be kept in “modern safes” that could “withstand concentrated burglarious attacks by drills, sledge hammers, wedges and mechanical tools.”
Over time, the files came to hold information about priests’ alcohol problems, squabbles over parish funds, clerics who had impregnated parishioners. By the 1970s and ’80s, church leaders found themselves increasingly documenting in the files whispers of a more disturbing sort: sexual abuse of children at the hands of priests.