Technicality keeps priest abuse files sealed
- An appeals panel reverses a ruling that the public’s “extraordinary” interest requires access to files containing allegations of sexual abuse by several Roman Catholic priests.
June 26, 2003 — A decision Wednesday by a Connecticut appellate court allows the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport to keep secret the names of priests accused of sexual abuse.
A three-judge panel in Hartford reversed a state judge’s ruling that the “extraordinary” public interest in clergy abuse required the opening of 23 sealed court files from cases settled between 1993 and 1999 with the Bridgeport diocese. The decision was based solely on a state procedural law that places a four-month deadline on motions to open court files after a case is resolved.
The appellate court said any First Amendment right of access to judicial documents was barred by the state law’s time requirement. The Hartford Courant, The New York Times and other newspapers filed lawsuits in May 2002 to gain access to the files.
“It sweeps far more than it needed to sweep,” Courant attorney Ralph G. Elliot said. “The appellate court believes that a state statute can trump the right of citizens who feel that their constitutional rights have been violated by sealing orders.”
Any individual who is unaware of a sealing order loses the ability to challenge the order in a Connecticut court four months and one day after the case closes, Elliot said.
The appellate court kept the files sealed while church lawyers appealed state Superior Court Judge Robert McWeeny’s order to open the files. McWeeney warned the appellate court that “the judicial system should not be a party to a cover-up by denying access” to information of such widespread public interest. McWeeney also said the court system facilitated a cover-up by sealing files over the objections of victims and encouraging victims to enter settlement agreements with confidentiality provisions.
McWeeny’s criticisms and warning earned him harsh words from the appellate panel. It called his allegations “misguided” and “imprudent.”
Court settlement agreements kept secret, or under seal, are one of the reasons news stories exposing sexual abuse in the church took so long to surface. In January 2002, The Boston Globe discovered that the Archdiocese of Boston secretly settled molestation claims against 70 priests over 10 years. The number of victims is difficult to identify because of the secrecy surrounding the settlements.
The Bridgeport diocese said in a statement posted on its Web site that the appellate court decision is “another step along the difficult path to justice and reconciliation.”
“The Diocese of Bridgeport will continue to take decisive measures in response to allegations and to comply with all civil and Church laws,” the statement said.
The newspapers have not decided yet whether they will appeal the ruling.
(Rosado v. Bridgeport Roman Catholic Diocesan Corp.; Media counsel: Ralph Elliot, Tyler, Cooper & Alcorn, Hartford, Conn.) — KH
- Lifting the religious veil (11/02/2002)
- Court urged to open documents in clergy abuse suits (06/05/2003)
© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press