8 Nov 2010

U.S. Supreme Court rejects Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport's request to keep legal documents sealed

New York Times - October 5, 2009

Bridgeport Diocese Loses Bid to Keep Sex-Abuse Records Sealed

The United States Supreme Court on Monday rejected a request by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport to delay the court-ordered release of thousands of legal documents from lawsuits filed against priests accused of sexually abusing children.

The decision, stemming from a suit brought by The New York Times and three other newspapers in 2002, does not mean the documents can be immediately released. But it leaves the diocese with few options in its seven-year fight to keep from public view 12,000 pages of records and depositions.

The papers detail decisions the diocese made in assigning priests who had molested children in the past to positions where they abused children again.

The records were originally obtained by plaintiffs in 23 lawsuits filed against the diocese and seven of its priests in the 1990s, during the tenure of Bishop Edward M. Egan, who was later named the archbishop of New York and a cardinal. They were sealed in 2001 after the diocese reached settlements with the plaintiffs, most of them former altar boys and youth group members who said they were molested by priests in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

Although the abuses chronicled in the 23 civil suits occurred before Bishop Egan’s arrival, advocates for abuse victims say that as bishop of Bridgeport from 1988 to 2000, he shuffled priests accused of molesting children from parish to parish.

He has said he followed the standard practice of the time: sending such priests to psychiatric institutions and returning them to parish work only after they had been cleared for duty by mental health professionals.

In its suit, The Times — joined by The Boston Globe, The Hartford Courant and The Washington Post — said the documents it sought to unseal were an important part of the record of institutional decisions that caused many children harm.

In its defense, the diocese said it had already changed the procedures that led to those decisions; and it argued that the First Amendment protected it and all religious institutions from public scrutiny or interference in their internal management.

The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled for the newspapers in June, ordering the documents released. In August, the diocese petitioned the United States Supreme Court to grant a stay of that order, and to review the case on constitutional grounds.

“The right of the church to determine the suitability of its own ministers has been compromised by this decision,” the current Bridgeport bishop, William E. Lori, said on Monday after the stay was denied.

Philip Allen Lacovara, a lawyer for the diocese, said the Supreme Court still had to decide whether to review the constitutional issues the diocese raised. That ruling could come any time in the next month, he said.

But the court seems unlikely to take up the matter; in the past, it has signaled interest in reviewing a case by granting stays for petitioners like the Bridgeport Diocese.

The decision to deny the stay was greeted by lawyers for the newspapers, and by victims’ advocates, as a strong indication that the documents would soon be released.

George H. Freeman, The Times’s lawyer, said, “We are heartened that after seven years of litigation and six rulings in favor of the public and the press, we finally are on the verge of seeing these documents.”

Dan Sullivan, a lawyer and co-chairman of the Voice of the Faithful affiliate in Bridgeport, which has pressed the church for more transparency since the priest abuse scandal erupted in 2002, said: “This case is not a case about the diocese’s First Amendment right to choose its ministers and determine their suitability. Rather, it is a case about the failure of the diocese to supervise properly its priests and take appropriate action to protect innocent children.”

In its petition to the Supreme Court, the diocese argued that public release of the records would violate the constitutional privacy of defendants named in the suits and establish a dangerous precedent regarding the type of court records to which the public should have access.

It also argued that the First Amendment generally, and a 1976 decision of the court in particular, which said civil authorities may not intrude in internal church governance, would be violated if the documents were released.

If fundamental Catholic values like forgiveness and redemption were among the considerations employed in deciding whether priests worked again — even if priests in question were known to have committed sexual abuse — then the public should “not to be allowed, in retrospect, to conclude that the diocese’s weighing of these factors resulted in a misguided or negligent decision,” the diocese argued in its petition.

To do so, it said, would be government interference in “ecclesiastical policy decisions,” and undermine the diocese’s “right to function as a religious institution.”

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, hailed the decision but criticized the diocese for delaying the release of important information for so long. “In a sense, kids have already lost,” he said, “despite this decision.”

He said that because the diocese had delayed opening its records for wide review, “children have been needlessly at risk.”

Before unsealing the papers, the Connecticut Superior Court is expected to hold hearings on procedures and privacy safeguards. A spokesman said on Monday that no hearings had yet been scheduled.

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