Press attempts to unseal records in clergy abuse cases
From the Summer 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 17.
By M. Franco Salvoza
Newspapers are experiencing varying degrees of success in efforts to unseal court files containing details from clergy sex abuse lawsuits.
Even though a June Roman Catholic bishops’ conference in Dallas ended with a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse and an atmosphere more conducive to accountability and disclosure, some news organizations still face considerable legal hurdles in their attempts to unseal court records.
Many media outlets have already successfully gained access to sealed files of suits brought, in some cases many years ago, by victims abused by Roman Catholic priests.
Public interest and outrage at the published revelations about cases and, often, their subsequent coverups triggered calls for disclosure of more sealed files.
Various lawsuits and requests for court records in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Kentucky and Illinois state that the public has a strong interest under the First Amendment in learning about possible predatory activity and coverups by diocese officials, and that these interests are more important than the privacy interests of victims and clergy.
”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 is not at all clear that any of them have covered up abuses by clerics to the same extent. The disclosures have to go on.”
Rules for sealing and accessing court files vary by state and 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 early July, Justice Robert D. Krause of the state superior court in Providence ruled that the First Amendment could not protect the church from requests for information about sexual abuses.
In his ruling, Krause ordered the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence to open records it had sealed regarding sexual abuses and said that its claim that the information was privileged was wrong. Furthermore, he dismissed the diocese’s argument that “such information or any such communication deserves or merits confidentiality as expressions of religious freedom.”
The diocese had relied on First Amendment religious rights as part of its argument for refusing to turn over documents to Catholics who alleged sexual abuse and brought lawsuits of their own.
In February, The Boston 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.
However, a judge delayed the release of important depositions of Cardinal Bernard F. Law, a central figure in the scandal in Massachusetts, and Manchester, N.H., Bishop John McCormack, citing the possibility of impairment to a fair trial.
Using a court order, the Boston Herald successfully obtained a file sealed by church officials 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 hundreds of pages and had been sealed for more than 10 years, included a letter from Porter to the Vatican outlining his homosexual involvement with young boys and a request to leave the church.
In a written opinion and perhaps the strongest statement regarding the issue, Superior Court Judge Robert F. McWeeny on June 12 criticized the state judiciary’s role in delaying the release of files he had unsealed and even accused it of “complicity” in a “cover-up.”
Citing an “extraordinary” public interest in clergy abuse lawsuits, McWeeny ordered that files sealed by the Bridgeport diocese for settled lawsuits be made public in early May.
“Connecticut courts have facilitated this process in the following manner: sealing the files over the objections of the victims; delaying the trials; thus encouraging the plaintiffs to enter into settlement agreements containing confidentiality and non-disclosure provisions; and preventing any timely adjudication of the merits,” McWeeny wrote in his opinion.
In particular, McWeeny criticized the courts for delaying release of seven of 23 boxes of records he had ordered unsealed in early May.
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. McWeeny 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,” a decision which the church appealed.
The state attorney general’s office filed a brief on behalf of The (Louisville) Courier-Journal to unseal records regarding as many as 130 sexual abuse lawsuits by victims of priests in Kentucky.
Archbishop Thomas Cajetan Kelly of Louisville had filed a motion to seal court documents concerning sexual abuse lawsuits, citing a state law allowing the court to seal molestation cases older than five years for the protection of minors. The Courier-Journal intervened to suppress that sealing, arguing that the statute is unconstitutional because the First Amendment prohibits that sealing.
Assistant Attorney General Scott White filed a brief on behalf of the newspaper.
“The issue is one of openness,” White wrote. Intervention and unsealing the records are necessary to “ensure the public’s meaningful access to these cases.” The statute was intended to protect the alleged victims, not a religious institution like the church, and the priests permitted their identities to be released. “None of the alleged priests involved have moved to intervene to assert any privacy interest,” White wrote.
However, the church argued that the law only sealed records until the judge determined the merits of the case. Once a priest is identified, it said, it would be difficult to restore his reputation in the public eye.
The lawsuits originally alleged that the archdiocese of Louisville was negligent in hiring and transferring abusive priests.
Attorneys for the Chicago Tribune successfully unsealed documents regarding as many as 16 sexual misconduct allegations against priests working in the Joliet, Ill., diocese since 1994.
Will County Judge Herman Haase ruled June 19 that the public has a right to see the documents, since they relate to sexual abuse of minors by diocesan priests. He briefly delayed the release of the records until June 21 to black out the names of victims, their parents, and those not suspected of any wrongdoing. Bishop Joseph Imesch and other church officials fought vigorously to keep the records closed to “ensure the privacy” of victims, they said in a statement.