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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."


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