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Media can intervene in priest abuse cases to see documents

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   CONNECTICUT   ·   Secret Courts   ·   Nov. 14, 2005

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   CONNECTICUT   ·   Secret Courts   ·   Nov. 14, 2005


Media can intervene in priest abuse cases to see documents

  • A high court ruling has paved the way for the possible release of documents in priest sex abuse cases brought by 23 victims.

Nov. 14, 2005  ·   Newspapers can ask for sealed documents in several priest sex abuse cases, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled, setting the stage for a lower court to decide whether they will be released. While not guaranteeing the documents’ release, the ruling maintains that judges hold executive control over the protective orders that close them from public viewing.

The Bridgeport Diocese and its accused priests “bear a heavy burden of establishing a compelling interest in preventing those documents from being disclosed to the public,” Justice Richard N. Palmer wrote for the court in the 3-2 ruling. The Nov. 4 ruling upheld a trial judge and reversed an intermediate appellate court ruling.

Without a “compelling interest” established, Palmer wrote, there would be no reason to prevent those documents from being disclosed.

“Although the newspapers’ interest in the withdrawn cases is limited in the sense that they do not have and never have had, a stake in the outcome of those case, they, and the public, do not have a legitimate interest in the contents of the court’s files,” Palmer wrote.

The Washington Post, The Hartford Courant, The New York Times and The Boston Globe have fought since March 2002 for permission to intervene in three priest sex abuse cases and gain access to the documents, arguing the public has a constitutional right to them under the First Amendment.

Protective orders sealing the files were issued to keep potentially volatile information secret until a jury was selected, but because the cases, involving 23 victims, were settled in March 2001, the newspapers argued that the sealing orders expired.

The newspapers’ fight began more than a year after the suits were settled and withdrawn. The 23 allegations, ranging from the late 1960s to the early 1990s, by former altar boys and members of church youth organizations involved six priests in the Bridgeport Roman Catholic Diocese.

Attorneys for the diocese argued that releasing the sealed documents would jeopardize and unveil sensitive and confidential information regarding the individual victims.

“These include the legal right of every citizen to rely on the finality of settled cases; the confidentiality of detailed medical and mental health records; and the privacy rights of innocent individuals who were never sued in these particular cases,” the diocese said in a statement.

The ruling could have serious repercussions for Cardinal Edward M. Egan, the archbishop of New York, since depositions of his were sealed under the protective orders in this case. Egan, the bishop of the Bridgeport Archdiocese from 1988 to 2000, has been scrutinized in the past for failing to alert authorities of abuse allegations and failing to suspend priests of their duties despite those allegations.

Chief Justice William J. Sullivan dissented in the case, saying that newspapers should not be permitted to intervene “absent a showing of extraordinary circumstances or compelling need.”

Sullivan, joined by Justice Peter T. Zarella in dissent, also said that the trial court needs to first determine if the secrecy of the documents factored into how the 2001 settlement was reached — which the diocese said was in their own court documents.

“In deciding to settle, an essential factor was the expectation and belief by the Diocese that the sealed materials in the court files would remain sealed, and that the discovery documents were and would remain confidential,” Sullivan quoted the Diocese’s brief in a footnote.

The documents were ordered released in 2002 by Superior Court Judge Robert F. McWeeny who ruled that even though more than four months had passed since the case had been resolved, the injunctions and protective orders were exempt from the Connecticut court deadline. McWeeny’s decision was appealed by the diocese and several priests, in an attempt to put the cases back on the docket. McWeeny then ordered the disclosure of most of the sealed files, saying that “the judicial system should not be a party to a cover-up by denying access to information concerning a matter of such widespread public interest.”

McWeeny’s ruling was vacated because it was rendered after the diocese appealed. The high court on Nov. 4 sent the case back to the Superior Court in Waterbury, Conn., for a new hearing with a different judge to hear the newspapers’ motion to open the files.

“We’re gratified that the Supreme Court has vigorously reaffirmed the presumption of open court records and defended the right of access to information of such critical public importance,” Courant Deputy Managing Editor G. Claude Albert told The Associated Press.

(In re Application of the New York Times Co.; Media Counsel: Jonathan M. Albano, Bingham McCutchen LLP, Boston)KT


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