Judge Favors Releasing Files of Sex-Abuse Allegations
Gregory D. Kesich email@example.com
Portland Press Herald [Augusta ME]
October 9, 2003
AUGUSTA — A judge said Wednesday that he will probably order the Maine attorney general to release details of sex-abuse allegations made against Roman Catholic clergy who are now dead.
After hearing oral arguments in a lawsuit filed by the Blethen Maine Newspapers, the owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Superior Court Justice Kirk Studstrup said the public's right to know the information may outweigh the privacy rights of people named in the files and their families.
"I'm beginning to come around to the idea that the balance is probably with the public interest in disclosure," Studstrup said after hearing lawyers from the newspaper and the Attorney General's Office.
He said his decision would be written soon, though release of the documents probably would be delayed to give Attorney General Steven Rowe an opportunity to appeal to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
At issue are the records in possession of the AG's office, including files turned over to prosecutors by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland on May 1, 2002. Those files contain allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests and other employees over the previous 75 years. Reportedly included in the files are allegations against 18 priests who are no longer living.
On June 4, 2002, the newspapers requested information from those files as well as summaries and notes that resulted from the state's investigation of the charges. The AG's office denied the request, prompting the lawsuit.
Rowe's office said the records were part of an ongoing criminal investigation, making them exempt from the state's Freedom of Access Law. Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin also argued that the priests have a right to privacy that exists even after they die.
Studstrup held a hearing on the matter in September 2002, and gave the AG six months to complete its investigation.
On Wednesday, Robbin said that as far as the dead priests are concerned, the investigation has been complete for some time. A final report on the whole investigation was supposed to have been released in August, but she said that has been delayed. "Additional decisions need to be made with respect to the investigation," she said.
Blethen lawyer Sigmund Schutz argued that there was a public value in releasing the documents because people want to understand the sex-abuse scandal.
"There is an interest from those who want to reform the church to know exactly what happened and how we can prevent it from happening again," he said. The public also has a right to know how prosecutors responded, or failed to respond, to allegations, he said.
Schutz said victims of abuse also have an interest in seeing their abuser exposed, even if he can't be held accountable because he is dead.
Robbin argued that unsubstantiated allegations collected by the government should not be part of the public record.
"This case is about what investigatory information the government can disclose about private citizens who have not been charged with a crime," she said. "Certain reputational interests survive death."
Robbin said the public interest in the allegations is limited because they were handled by the diocese, a private institution. "You have an interest in what your government is up to . . . but ultimately that is not what this case is about," she said.
Studstrup said that even though he was leaning toward releasing the documents, he was concerned about the fairness of naming people who cannot defend themselves. He also indicated that the quality of the allegations in the AG's files is uneven.
"There are going to be some editorial decisions that should be made," he said. "I wouldn't want to put myself in the editor's position on this one."
Schutz said the newspaper was prepared to use the information selectively, citing its policy of not publishing the names of alleged victims of sex crimes.
"We have tremendous confidence in our editorial policy to distinguish between allegations that are not credible and those that are," he said.
Staff Writer Gregory D. Kesich can be contacted at 791-6336 or at e-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org
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