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Courts urged to open documents in clergy abuse lawsuits

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         ROUNDUP         Freedom of Information         Jun 5, 2002    

Courts urged to open documents in clergy abuse lawsuits

  • News organizations are mounting legal challenges to uncover sealed files of past lawsuits involving sexual abuse and allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

Newspapers are experiencing varying degrees of success in their efforts to unseal court files containing details of clergy sex abuse lawsuits.

Some news organizations still face considerable legal hurdles, while others have successfully gained access to sealed files of suits brought, in some cases many years ago, by victims against Roman Catholic priests.

The public’s interest in following revelations about cases and the growing media coverage of the crimes and their subsequent coverups sparked calls for disclosure of even more previously sealed files.

Various lawsuits and requests for court records in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Kentucky, Illinois and Wisconsin pit the privacy interest in protecting victims and members of the clergy from public scrutiny against the First Amendment interests in making the public aware of possible predatory activity and coverups by diocese officials.

”It’s a story that, if anything, was too long undercovered, or un-covered,” James M. Naughton, a practicing Catholic and president of the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in Florida, told The Boston Globe . ”It’s certainly true that most religious organizations have seldom been subjected to the kind of scrutiny that the Catholic Church is being subjected to now, but it’s not at all clear that any of them have covered up abuses by clerics to the same extent. The disclosures have to go on.”

The rules for sealing and accessing court files vary with the type of file requested, but often files such as arrest warrants contain criminal information that is supposed to be a matter of public record. However, judges may seal certain files when a party’s attorneys can demonstrate a compelling interest in doing so. In many abuse cases, attorneys for church officials convinced judges to seal records, while the clergy covered up evidence of lawsuits and transferred the alleged perpetrators to distant parishes.

In February, The Globe successfully forced disclosure of records of more than 80 hidden clergy abuse suits settled between 1992 and 1996 in Suffolk County Superior Court. Citing a “legitimate public interest,” Superior Court Judge Ralph D. Gants lifted impoundment orders that had eliminated any public record that the suits had been filed, including information about the impoundment hearings themselves.

The Globe learned of the settled lawsuits after a search of more than 1,000 civil lawsuits involving attorneys known to have had roles in cases involving the clergy. The newspaper discovered the existence of the impounded cases when the court’s computer system blocked access to them.

Using a court order, the Boston Herald successfully obtained a sealed file concerning a suit against James A. Porter, a former priest in the Fall River Diocese, a southeastern Massachusetts diocese including Bristol County and Nantucket. The file, which contained thousands of pages and had been sealed for ten years, included a letter from Porter to the Vatican outlining his homosexual involvement with young boys and a request to leave the church.

In Connecticut, The Hartford Courant , The New York Times and other newspapers filed lawsuits in May for court files from 23 suits settled between 1993 and 1999. Though The Courant did get some files leaked while they were still under seal, Superior Court Judge Robert F. McWeeny eventually found in favor of access to these files for the newspapers, stating that the public interest outweighed the “privacy rights of clerics and their church.”

But the diocese of Bridgeport, Conn. appealed McWeeny’s ruling. The state appellate court temporarily blocked the release of the files until a hearing takes place in June.

In Kentucky, The Courier-Journal of Louisville filed a motion to suppress the sealing of court documents of lawsuits in Kentucky, The New York Times reported. Archbishop Thomas Cajetan Kelly of the Louisville diocese moved to have the details of lawsuits sealed under a 1999 state law sealing molestation cases five or more years old for the protection of minors.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel faces a similar situation in its petition to unseal records opened in the case of Clarence Francis Hahn, a Milwaukee native and priest who admitted to having sexual contact with four young males in the 1970s and 80s. Church officials who were sued in 1994 in Fond du Lac County moved to seal the documents to protect the reputation of the school when molestation allegations surfaced.

In Illinois, attorneys for the Chicago Tribune argued before Will County Judge Herman Haase for the unsealing of documents regarding as many as 16 sexual misconduct allegations against priests working in the Joliet, Ill., diocese since 1994. Haase has yet to rule on the motion, and hearings scheduled for June 6 may provide public access to these files.

“If the files are allowed to remain secret, it fosters the unhealthy notion that court proceedings are being conducted in secrecy,” Tribune attorney Natalie Spears told The Courier News .


© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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