Court Questions Ruling on Abuse Records

By Gregory D. Kesich
Portland Press Herald [Bangor ME]
Downloaded May 14, 2004

BANGOR - Saying it would have a "chilling effect" on law enforcement, a justice of Maine's highest court led blistering questioning Thursday of a lower court ruling that requires the state to give the public access to sexual-abuse allegations against Roman Catholic priests who are now dead. Supreme Judicial Court Justice Donald Alexander was particularly critical of the lower court's order to release files that include the names of the priests' alleged victims and witnesses who reported the abuse.

"What signal is sent to potential victims if the word goes forth from this court that if you come forward today, your name could be splashed on the front page tomorrow?" Alexander asked. "If our message is, 'Yes, we are going to let the newspaper hang people out to dry,' there would be a definite chilling effect."

The center of controversy was a decision by Superior Court Justice Kirk Studstrup, who said the now-deceased priests' privacy rights are outweighed by the public's right to know about the charges and how they were handled. He also ruled that the privacy rights of the people who made the allegations had been "eroded by time, life and the manner in which the information came to the attorney general."

Studstrup's ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by Blethen Maine Newspapers, the owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, which requested the information under Maine's Freedom of Access Act. The newspaper's request was opposed by Attorney General Steven Rowe, who appealed Studstrup's ruling.

Sigmund Schutz, the lawyer representing the newspaper, said it would be wrong to throw out Studstrup's ruling in an effort to help victims.

"The victims are being used as human shields to protect their perpetrators from being brought to light," Schutz said.

Schutz repeated that the newspaper offered to accept the files with the victims' names blacked out, but that the state refused.

He pointed out that Blethen newspapers, like most news organizations, do not identify the victims of sex crimes without their consent. The decision of what information from the files would eventually be published in the newspaper would be governed by journalistic ethics, he said.

That did not seem to impress Alexander. "You want to publish those names," he insisted.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland collected allegations of abuse against 63 priests and other clergy members during the past 75 years. In almost every case, the allegations were handled by the church and not reported to authorities. According to a report issued by Rowe in February, 20 of the accused men are now dead.

In a lawsuit filed in July 2002, the newspaper argued that the files concerning the dead priests are subject to the state's open records law because they cannot be part of a criminal investigation.

Rowe has argued that the deceased priests have a right to privacy even after death, a right that has never been recognized in Maine courts.

Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin argued Thursday that there is no public right to the documents because they were not originally produced by the government.

"The public has a right to know what its government is up to," she said. "It does not have a right to know what deceased priests were up to, or what the diocese was up to, or what any other private organization is up to. There is no credible allegation that the government dropped the ball on investigating these claims."

Robbin said that if the records are to be released, the court should obscure the names of the "victims, witnesses, relatives, parishes, towns and the alleged perpetrators."

Justice Howard Dana asked Schutz if the public interest could be served if the records were released with all of the identifying data removed. Schutz said that much editing could make the records "unintelligible."

After the hearing, Schutz said the documents should be made public. "This is an open society, and part of that means having access to information, even if it is embarrassing or disturbing or even damaging," he said.

The court adjourned after hearing arguments. There is no timetable for its decision, which will be issued in writing.

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


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