Silence Imposed in Abuse Lawsuits
Directive Bans Those Involved in Cases from Talking to Media
By Andrew Tilghman
Albany Times Union [Albany NY]
February 11, 2003
Albany -- A state Supreme Court justice has imposed a gag order on people involved in cases of clergy sexual abuse, a move that could prohibit further public discussion and disclosures about the Albany diocese, the Times Union has learned.
Justice Joseph Teresi issued the order, which has not been made public, on Monday, seeking to prohibit lawyers and clients involved in cases concerning sexual abuse by a priest -- including victims -- from speaking to the media.
The order comes as Bishop Howard Hubbard and other church officials are weathering a storm of new criticism and a fresh round of public disclosures stemming from sexual abuse in the church and the way victims who came forward were handled last year.
Teresi declined to comment on the conference Monday with Michael Costello, the attorney for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, and John Aretakis, who represents more than two dozen people who say they were molested by Albany diocesan priests.
A spokesman for the diocese, Ken Goldfarb, declined to comment on the ruling.
Aretakis also declined comment.
"I can only say that I am constrained and compelled not to make any comments about any clergy abuse until I get a copy of Judge Teresi's order and I review it," Aretakis said.
At least two of Aretakis' clients, who have spoken previously to the Times Union on condition of anonymity, indicated on Monday that they believed they were no longer permitted to do so.
Teresi's reasons for the order and its details were not immediately known but were expected to be made public today, a court official said.
Gag orders are unusual but not unheard of, legal experts said. Judges can prohibit public discussions in some circumstances if they fear unchecked publicity will prejudice potential jurors in a case.
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge imposed a gag order last month on all parties involved in mediation talks as the Los Angeles diocese tries to settle claims with more than 100 people who say they were sexually abused by priests.
Aretakis has filed three lawsuits against the Albany diocese during the past three months, all targeting church officials' response to victims who came forward last year rather than the underlying allegations of abuse, which is beyond the state's three-year statute of limitations.
Mark Furnish, an Albany lawyer and regional spokesman for the national Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the order would have a chilling effect on victims' efforts to hold church officials accountable.
"I can guarantee that less victims will be willing to come forward because they know that the law is not on their side with this," Furnish said. "I feel physically sick about this and that something like this in this day and age is allowed to happen."
The Albany diocese has removed from ministry two priests in the past seven days due to what church officials described as credible allegations that they sexually abused children in the 1970s -- the seventh and eighth such removals since last summer.
This past weekend, Hubbard removed the Rev. Joseph R. Romano, who worked in Albany parishes and schools, based on two complaints received last summer and earlier this year, church officials said.
On Monday, a church spokesman acknowledged that the diocese had received a complaint about Romano in 1998. The complaint was forwarded to authorities, who determined it to be "unfounded."
The church spokesman would not say whether the diocesan sexual misconduct panel had reviewed that complaint following the zero-tolerance policy U.S. bishops adopted in Dallas last year.
Hubbard has faced criticism about quietly giving one victim more than $225,000 during the height of the national scandal last summer. Sister Maureen Joyce, who heads Albany's Catholic Charities, also was criticized for taking part in the payments. The payments were disclosed for the first time last month when the victim spoke to the press.
The diocese is fighting one lawsuit, filed by Aretakis, that seeks damages under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO law, traditionally used to prosecute organized crime.
The cases were recently assigned to Teresi's courtroom. Teresi has experience handling high-profile and sensitive cases, though some of his decisions have come under fire.
When Teresi presided over the trial of four New York City police officers accused in the killing of Amadou Diallo in 2000, he barred reporters from examining some 200 papers and other exhibits. The state Supreme Court's Appellate Division later overturned his order.
Teresi was censured by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct in February 2001 for being discourteous and putting people in jail for contempt without a hearing.
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