Court Will Weigh Privacy Rights

By Gregory D. Kesich
Portland Press Herald [Maine]
March 12, 2004

Maine's highest court will confront three different views of privacy rights when it considers whether to release the names of deceased Roman Catholic clergy accused of child sexual abuse as well as the identities of their alleged victims.

Lawyers for the Blethen Maine Newspapers, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Portland, and two victims' advocacy groups have entered briefs arguing different viewpoints of what the Supreme Judicial Court should release.

At issue is a lower court ruling that ordered the attorney general to make public the files of sexual abuse allegations against clergy members who are now dead, including the names of the victims and witnesses who reported them.

In its brief, Blethen, the parent company of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, has asked the high court to uphold the ruling. Bishop Joseph Gerry's brief asks that the records be kept secret and, if any are released, that all names and identifying information be suppressed.

In a joint brief, Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests and Voice of the Faithful, ask that the priests' names be released, but the victims' names be kept secret.

The case began with a Freedom of Access request filed by the newspaper in the spring of 2002. The Attorney General's Office had been invited to look at 75 years of diocesan personnel records, and removed documents related to priests who had been the subject of abuse allegations as part of a potential criminal investigation.

The newspaper requested the files involving deceased priests, since they could not result in prosecutions. The attorney general denied the request, citing privacy rights of the people involved.

On Oct. 24, 2003, Justice Kirk Studstrup ruled there was a public interest in releasing the files that outweighed privacy rights of the people involved. With the support of the diocese and the victims' groups, the state appealed his order.

In his brief for the newspaper, Blethen lawyer Sigmund Schutz argued there is no legal right to privacy that outlives an individual. And even if there were, it should not be asserted in this case.

"The information is of unique and unprecedented public concern," Schutz wrote. "The Superior Court correctly determined that the overwhelming interest in disclosure outweighs any residual privacy interests."

In his brief, Bishop Gerry asks the court to continue to seal records detailing abuse, to protect both the named victims and the still-living family members of the men who were accused.

"For some victims, the simple fact that strangers know about personal, painful details from childhood will be distressing," wrote Frederick Moore, the bishop's lawyer. "Even if a publication were to withhold the name of a victim, he or she could still be forced to relive the past against his or her wishes simply by reading the account in print."

Moore also said Studstrup was wrong to rule that priests and their families have no privacy rights.

In the joint brief, SNAP and VOTF argue that publicizing the names of abusers is healing for victims, and has been shown to help others come forward. The benefit would be lost, argued the group's lawyer Keith Varner, if the people who reported the abuse were also exposed.

The Supreme Court will consider the briefs and could schedule the case for oral arguments before reaching a decision.

Staff Writer Gregory D. Kesich can be contacted at 791-6336


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