Priest Abuse Files to Stay Sealed
State Appellate Court Reverses Lower Court
By Lynne Tuohy
Hartford Courant [Connecticut]
June 26, 2003
The state Appellate Court Wednesday reversed a lower court order unsealing cartons of documents in the Bridgeport priest sexual abuse cases, saying motions by several newspapers were filed too late.
The court cast aside media arguments that their First Amendment rights would be perpetually denied if the lower court order were not upheld.
"Such a claim ignores the newspapers' failure to intervene in a timely manner while the underlying cases were pending, or within four months following the date of their withdrawal," Appellate Judge Joseph P. Flynn wrote. "At best, the newspapers divert attention from their own belated actions, despite extensive knowledge of trial court proceedings, by attempting to cast blame on others by portraying themselves as victims who are merely seeking validation of their constitutional rights."
The court's unanimous ruling also takes to task Superior Court Judge Robert F. McWeeny, who had assailed the state's courts - including the Appellate Court - for helping facilitate the church's cover-up of the priest sexual abuse scandal. McWeeny said the courts repeatedly postponed proceedings and sealed files over the victims' objections. The appellate judges described McWeeny's remarks as "misguided" and "imprudent."
"The charge here is especially regrettable because it is totally unsubstantiated by the record and is made by a judge of our Superior Court who did not take evidence in support of his accusations," Flynn wrote. The Appellate Court in May 2002 issued a stay barring McWeeny's order unsealing the files from taking effect until it could rule on the appeal.
"Speed achieved at the expense of individual rights would be a hollow victory indeed," Flynn wrote. "Fairness demands that we adhere to the same due process requirements in high-profile cases that we follow in cases of far less complexity and public significance."
The 23 lawsuits claimed sexual abuse by priests and cover-up by the diocese spanning decades, and the files have remained sealed since 1994. The lawsuits were withdrawn in March 2001, during settlement negotiations that culminated in $12 million being paid to the victims.
A year after the lawsuits were withdrawn, The New York Times - later joined by The Courant, Boston Globe and Washington Post - filed an emergency motion to intervene and unseal the files. It was labeled an emergency motion because the cartons of secret documents were slated to be destroyed that same month. McWeeny did not grant the newspapers intervenor status but allowed them to proceed as non-parties to the litigation who were representing the public.
State law sets a four-month deadline for reopening civil cases that have reached final judgment, and for restoring to the docket cases that have been withdrawn. The media claimed, among other things, that the statute and its deadline violate the First Amendment. The Appellate Court was not persuaded.
The judges first cited a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court ruling stating that there is no First Amendment right of access to pretrial discovery materials. They then emphasized the clarity of the statute which mandates, with few exceptions, that motions to reopen closed civil cases must be filed within four months.
"Our condoning of the trial court's actions in the present case would set a dangerous precedent for reinstating proceedings ... in countless other closed cases involving divorces, trade secrets litigation and the entire panoply of civil litigation where files remain extant," Flynn wrote.
Attorney James Stapleton, one of the lawyers representing the Bridgeport diocese, said, "There are rules, and everybody has to follow the rules, even The New York Times. It wasn't like [the case] was a secret. Everyone knew about it. Everyone reported it. If it was important to [gain access to the files], it should have been done in a timely fashion. That's the bottom line."
But attorney Ralph G. Elliot, who represented The Courant, said the court's decision now governs those cases that are not that high-profile, in which the media aren't even aware of documents having been sealed. The recent controversy over so-called "Level 1" sealed cases in Connecticut, in which the very existence of the case and its parties is kept secret, highlights this point.
"The effect of this court's decision is to condemn every citizen of the state of Connecticut to either finding out about a case within four months of its completion and seeking to reopen it, or forever being denied access to files, whether constitutionally sealed or not."
The media's motions seeking access to sealed files in the Bridgeport cases followed the remarkable unsealing of voluminous files and transcripts in February 2002, in the Boston priest scandal involving Paul Geoghan, among others. In Boston, compelling public interest in the scandal and its cover-up trumped the veil of secrecy that had enveloped those cases for years.
Several of the sealing orders in the Bridgeport cases specified they were to be lifted upon the completion of jury selection or resolution of the case. Although lawyers for the media argued that the files should have been made public once the cases were withdrawn, the Appellate Court never addressed that issue, stating it didn't have to. The four-month rule was sufficient to decide the case.
The court also faulted McWeeny for creating a new file and docket number for the media motions and replies by the diocese. In part, the court noted, seven priests who were not the targets of the lawsuits but whose personnel files were part of the sealed court file, were not officially notified of the new case, despite their privacy interests in the outcome. Creation of the new file, the court ruled, was fraught with "procedural irregularities and outright violations of pertinent rules and statutes."
G. Claude Albert, a deputy managing editor of The Courant, said he and other media executives are reviewing the ruling and are not prepared yet to say whether they will seek review by the state Supreme Court.
The court said that leaving cases subject to being reopened indefinitely would be contrary to state law permitting destruction of files in withdrawn cases a year later. More important, the court ruled, it would be contrary to "longstanding public policy of promoting judicial economy, stability of former judgments and finality. Continuing jurisdiction could also wreak havoc with the important public policy of encouraging pretrial resolution of disputes."
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