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Sex files on dead priests must be released

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    News Media Update         MAINE         Freedom of Information         April 28, 2005    

Sex files on dead priests must be released

  • The state’s attorney general must release his office’s decades-old records relating to investigations of sexual abuse allegedly committed by Roman Catholic priests, the state’s highest court ruled.

April 28, 2005 — Investigatory files pertaining to never-prosecuted allegations of Roman Catholic priest sex abuse must be released by Maine Attorney General G. Steven Rowe because the privacy interests of the 18 dead priests and their families don’t outweigh the public’s right to know about how the department conducted the investigation, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled April 22 in a sharply divided opinion.

Newspaper publisher Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc. — owner of the Portland Press Herald, the Kennebec (Augusta) Journal and the Waterville Morning Sentinel newspapers — requested the records, pertaining to 18 dead Roman Catholic priests, from Rowe’s office in June 2002. Rowe refused to release the files, citing an exemption to state open records law for documents whose release would be an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

The newspapers sued, and Superior Court Justice Kirk Studstrup ruled in their favor in 2003, declining to even require redaction of alleged victim and witnesses names. Rowe appealed.

A 4-3 majority of the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling that the records must be released, but permitted victim and witness names to be redacted.

The priests’ privacy interests in the records were “largely extinguished” because they are dead, Justice Jon D. Levy said. Their immediate family members, however, retain a minimal privacy interest in the information, he said.

The ruling relied heavily on differing interpretations of the 2004 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in National Archives and Records Admin. v. Favish, which required a Freedom of Information Act requester to prove “government impropriety” to supercede a family’s privacy interests in post-suicide photographs of deputy White House counsel Vince Foster.

Because the priest sex abuse investigation files implicated less sensitive family privacy interests than were at stake in Favish, Levy wrote that it was enough to justify their release that “the information is sought for the sake of evaluating” the government’s investigation for the first time.

The dissent, led by Justice Robert W. Clifford, disagreed with what it called the majority’s dramatic departure from U.S. Supreme Court precedent. It “employs much too lenient a standard in concluding that there is a significant public interest” in seeing the investigative records that outweighed privacy interests, he wrote. “Blethen failed to allege, and certainly has not established, that any government impropriety has occurred.”

Clifford also chastised the majority for not sufficiently establishing victims’ privacy interests, even though it had endorsed redacting their names. “Federal courts have wisely observed that people do not want their names connected with criminal investigations,” he wrote for the dissent.

The case is the second decision on the release of priest sex abuse files from a state high court in the past month. On April 12, the California Supreme Court stepped in only minutes before the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles was to publish on its Web site the personnel files of 117 priests accused of sex abuse. The priests argued that the archdiocese’s plan to publish the files violated promised confidentiality when they participated in mediation. The Supreme Court ruled without comment that the files should not be posted on the Internet, and sent the case to a lower court for further review.

(Belthen Maine Newspapers, Inc. v. Maine; Media Counsel: Jonathan S. Piper and Sigmund D. Schutz, Preti Flaherty Beliveau Pachios & Haley, LLC; Portland, Maine)RL

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