Judge Rules on Sex Abuse Evidence
Cuyahoga County Court Will Decide Whether Files Can Be Made Public
By Colette M. Jenkins
Beacon Journal [Cleveland OH]
Downloaded July 20, 2003
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Brian Corrigan ruled Friday that his court can decide whether the county prosecutor can make public his files from a seven-month investigation into allegations of sexual abuse by employees of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland.
The files contain more than 50,000 pieces of sealed evidence from a grand jury investigation last year.
Lawyers for the diocese had argued that the Cuyahoga County court did not have jurisdiction in ruling on the release of the files.
But Corrigan didn't buy that.
"The court finds ajusticiable controversy exists and that this court has jurisdiction," the judge wrote in his ruling.
(A justiciable controversy is defined as a dispute that can be settled by a court of law.)
The decision on actually releasing the files is still months away.
On Thursday, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor William Mason filed a brief with the court, clarifying his position on release of documents. Mason said his office still wants permission to publicly disclose the grand jury materials.
"And at a minimum," he said, "the prosecutor must be permitted to make disclosure to the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland and other appropriate public agencies."
Mason said his office has already given required information on abuse allegations to the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services.
"The whole premise of this investigation was the protection of children," Mason said. "I recognize that, by law, grand jury records are secret, but I think the public has a right to know who, what, when and where to make sure other children are not at risk."
The prosecutor received allegations of abuse from throughout the eight-county diocese, which includes Summit, Medina and Wayne counties. Evidence on cases from outside Cuyahoga County was shared with prosecutors in the other counties.
In a letter to Mason's office on Friday, diocesan attorneys restated their position, saying they do not want evidence from the investigation made public but that they do not oppose selective disclosure to the diocese and other government agencies.
"Within a short time after Mr. Mason's announcement of the conclusion of the investigation," the letter said, "we requested that your office provide the Diocese with any information that you could properly disclose, within the bounds of law, regarding allegations against those in ministry or who may seek reinstatement to the ministry, and that you did not believe the Diocese did not already have, at least in substance."
Mason said he advocates the public release of substantiated allegations that were barred from prosecution because of the statute of limitations.
The names of victims and unsubstantiated accusations should not be made public, the prosecutor said.
The investigation, which ended in December with indictments against one priest and six diocesan employees, revealed that of the 496 alleged offenders, 143 were priests. About 80 incidents involving those priests could not be prosecuted because the statute of limitations had expired.
In February, Mason asked the court to decide whether the documents could be unsealed, but diocesan attorneys argued that the way the prosecutor presented his request had no legal standing.
That argument is what Corrigan ruled on Friday.
But before Corrigan can decide to whom the county prosecutor can release his files, there is one more procedural hurdle that must be cleared -- another jurisdictional question posed last week by attorneys for Cleveland Catholic Charities Services' Parmadale. Former employees of Parmadale, a residential treatment facility, were indicted on charges of sexual abuse.
A decision on Parmadale's argument is expected within two weeks.
If Corrigan again decides his court has jurisdiction, the case likely will proceed with written arguments from the prosecutor and attorneys for the diocese and other entities that have joined the case on both sides. It could take as long as four months before the judge is ready to hear oral arguments.
Options for Corrigan include making the files public, releasing the files only to social service and police agencies, releasing the files only to the diocese, or not releasing them at all.
In the end, University of Akron law professor J. Dean Carro believes the records will remain sealed.
Carro said the general rule in Ohio has been to keep grand jury materials secret unless there is a compelling reason to make them public and the information cannot be obtained in other places.
"It's very dangerous for the government to put certain information in the public realm," Carro said. "The societal view of things like child sexual abuse is so extreme that you can put people in harm's way for merely an accusation.
"The level of proof for a grand jury is not significant enough to bring down on the shoulders of any person the pressure of being a sexual offender and potentially being ostracized by society.
"I would be surprised if the information is made public. But it wouldn't be unreasonable for the judge to release the information to the diocese, which is private, with the understanding that the information would remain private."
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