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Court halts closed hearing on priest abuse records

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Court halts closed hearing on priest abuse records

  • A California appeals court temporarily suspended secret proceedings over church files and said it will consider a media challenge to the sealing of the record.

Sep. 16, 2003 — In response to a request by the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Daily Journal, a California state appeals court last week postponed a closed hearing on the disclosure of church files relating to priests accused of sexual misconduct.

Retired judge Thomas F. Nuss was appointed to resolve document-related disputes between the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles and local prosecutors. He sealed the entire case file on Aug. 27, which the Times and Daily Journal contend violates the First Amendment, and had barred the public and press from attending the hearing.

“Such secrecy — particularly when it appears to benefit a powerful institution like the Archdiocese — inevitably undermines public confidence in the criminal justice system,” the news organizations argued in papers filed with the appeals court.

The news organizations are also seeking disclosure of the judicial order by which Nuss was appointed. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dan T. Oki, who is overseeing the grand jury investigation of alleged clergy abuse, appointed Nuss.

Nuss is reportedly being paid an hourly fee of $350 by the archdiocese, which the Times and Daily Journal said raises “serious questions about the propriety of this arrangement.”

According to a lawyer familiar with the case, a key area of the dispute before Nuss is whether the archdiocese may invoke a “penitent-confessor” privilege to withhold documents containing admissions of misconduct by priests. Those files comprise some 2,000 pages and were subpoenaed by the grand jury more than a year ago.

In similar cases nationwide, the church has been ordered to turn over such files. In the clergy sexual abuse scandal in Boston, for example, courts repeatedly rejected the archdiocese’s argument that the Constitution shields it from having to disclose its internal records to civil authorities. The news organizations are not seeking access to the files.

The California court did not indicate when it would issue a decision.

(Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Daily Journal v. Superior Court of the State of California; Media Counsel: Kelli Sager, Davis Wright Tremaine; Los Angeles) JM

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