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No more blanket secrecy in L.A. archdiocese sexual abuse case

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No more blanket secrecy in L.A. archdiocese sexual abuse case

  • A California appeals court struck down a blanket secrecy order, but declined to recognize a broad right of public access to the proceedings.

Dec. 16, 2003 — In a partial victory for the news media, the California Court of Appeal in Los Angeles (2nd Cir.) ruled Friday that a trial judge may not impose a blanket secrecy order in grand jury-related proceedings that involve allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Los Angeles.

However, the court refused to recognize a presumptive public right of access to the proceedings, leaving the media’s actual degree of access to be litigated in the trial court.

The appellate court’s 17-page opinion addressed an issue that had not yet been addressed by California’s courts: whether the public and the news media have a First Amendment right of access to so-called “ancillary” grand jury proceedings, which are an offshoot of an ongoing grand jury investigation.

The proceeding in question involves a dispute between the Los Angeles district attorney and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles over access to priests’ personnel files and other church records relating to allegations of child molestation by clergymen. In August, retired judge Thomas F. Nuss, who was appointed as a discovery referee by trial judge Dan T. Oki, entered a blanket order sealing all records, transcripts and hearings in the dispute.

That order was struck down by the appeals court on Friday, 3-0.

“We are pleased that the court found blanket sealing orders and closure orders are impermissible,” said attorney Kelli Sager, who represents the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Daily Journal in the case.

However, Sager added, “We believe the court did not go far enough in recognizing the public’s right of access to court records and proceedings that do not disclose private information about what is transpiring before the grand jury.”

Relying on three California Supreme Court decisions, the appeals court found that there is no presumptive right of public access to grand jury-related documents and hearings, even in an ancillary grand jury proceeding. “The strong principle of grand jury secrecy warrants applying the same non-disclosure presumption [that applies to grand juries],” the court ruled.

Consequently, the burden is now on the news media or the public to demonstrate that any specific document or hearing should be open. The case was sent back to the Superior Court in Los Angeles for such determinations.

(Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Daily Journal v. Superior Court, Media Counsel: Kelli L. Sager, Davis Wright & Tremaine, Los Angeles) JM

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