Judge Opens Allegations against Deceased Priests [Portland ME]
October 25, 2003

PORTLAND, Maine A judge has ordered the Maine attorney general to release details of sex abuse allegations made against Roman Catholic clergy who are now dead.

Superior Court Justice Kirk Studstrup issued a written decision Friday that said the privacy rights of alleged victims and abusers named in the files have been eroded by time and the deaths of the priests.

The order will take effect in 21 days to allow time for Attorney General Steven Rowe to appeal the decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin said the state may appeal and would not immediately release the information.

At issue are some of the records that the attorney general's office possesses, 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.

Blethen Maine Newspapers, the owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, requested information regarding dead priests who no longer face prosecution, as well as summaries and notes that resulted from the state's investigation of the charges. The attorney general's office denied the request, prompting Blethen Maine Newspapers to file a lawsuit.

Rowe's office argued the records were exempt from the state's freedom of access law because they were part of an ongoing criminal investigation and because the priests have a right to privacy even after they die.

Studstrup gave Rowe's office time to complete the investigation before making a ruling.

At a hearing earlier this month, the attorney general's office said the investigation was complete. But Robbin maintained that the records should remain confidential because of the privacy rights of the people named in the files, including those who can no longer defend themselves. Robbin argued that unsubstantiated allegations collected by the government should not be part of the public record.

But Studstrup disagreed, writing that "the public interest in allegations of sexual abuse of minors, and particularly how such allegations were or were not investigated by the (Portland) diocese and law enforcement officials is of great and appropriate public interest."

Cyndi Desrosiers, an advocate for victims who was abused as a girl by a priest in Massachusetts, said the decision could help prevent future abuse and promote healing for victims who may have thought they were unique.

"Our hope was that the information would be released so parishes where the abuse happened can have some sort of dialogue, and so more people can come forward and get healing," she said.

Jeannine Guttman, the Press Herald's executive editor and vice president, said the decision was a victory for the public's right to know. But the decision doesn't meant the newspaper plans to simply publish names or allegations.

"I want to stress that our ability to now review these cases doesn't automatically mean that we will publish the information we have won access to," she said. "We will review each case and judge its news value and journalistic merits."


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