Calif Appeals Court Refuses to Make Priest Sex Abuse Case Public

By Robert Jablon
Herald Tribune [Los Angeles CA]
December 13, 2003


A state appeals court refused to allow public access to legal decisions related to allegations that priests molested children in the nation's largest Roman Catholic archdiocese, but asked a judge to reconsider his stance.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled Friday against two newspapers that sought to open legal hearings in which the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is trying to keep the grand jury from seeing church personnel records.

The appellate court sent the case back to a retired judge who has been reviewing the documents to determine which files and findings from the hearings, if any, should be released.

Prosecutors, who supported the newspapers' request, are seeking the documents to determine if they show evidence of sexual abuse of minors by priests or reveal a cover-up by church officials. The archdiocese has sought to keep them from the grand jury.

A tentative ruling on the records had been issued by retired Superior Court Judge Thomas F. Nuss, who was hired to review hundreds of pages of documents that the archdiocese's lawyers said should not be made public. But Nuss sealed that ruling from the public - along with all the underlying documents.

The Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Daily Journal argued that the proceedings in question aren't covered by grand jury secrecy rules.

The appeals court disagreed.

"As a general matter, there is no public right of access to grand jury proceedings and materials," the court said in its ruling, "and it is the party seeking disclosure who has the burden of overcoming a presumption of grand jury secrecy."

The court said there was no precedent in California involving proceedings related to a grand jury investigation that do not occur in front of grand jurors themselves.

But the three-member panel said it found that federal cases interpreting a 1983 rule on grand jury secrecy concluded that such proceedings "should be kept secret to the extent necessary to safeguard the grand jury process."

At the conclusion of its decision, the court panel stated that grand jury secrecy requires nondisclosure regarding supplementary proceedings, but it also said that, at least theoretically, some aspect of those proceedings could be safely disclosed.

"This decision is important," said Susan Seager, an attorney representing the newspapers. "It holds that a trial court may not issue a blanket sealing order and keep the public in the dark about its legal rulings simply because there is a relationship to a grand jury investigation."

Seager said the newspapers would ask Nuss to open legal briefs and his own order - but not the church records at the heart of the dispute.

"We're not seeking transcripts of secret testimony," she said.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley said he may appeal.

"Depending on how Judge Nuss rules, we may revisit these issues with the California Supreme Court," the prosecutor said in a statement.

Donald Woods Jr., a lawyer for the archdiocese, said it was a "well-reasoned and well-balanced" decision.

Don Steier, a lawyer representing priests involved in the case, said it was unlikely Nuss would unseal the material.


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