Lawyer for Church Asks Judge Not to Release Priests' Data
Media Seek Access to Documents Not Yet Put in Evidence
By Henry K. Lee
San Francisco Chronicle [California]
October 14, 2004
The employment records of priests accused of sexual abuse should not be made public before a trial, an attorney for the Roman Catholic Church told an Alameda County judge Wednesday.
James Sweeney, an attorney representing the bishop of the Diocese of Sacramento, said that documents not yet formally admitted as evidence should not be made available to reporters under the First Amendment.
The case against priests is based on law and justice, Sweeney told Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw. "This is not a forum for doing investigative reporting," Sweeney said.
Sweeney's comments came a day after Sabraw issued a tentative ruling stating that the content of priests' employment files "is a matter of public concern and interest and outweighs privacy interests of the defendants."
Sweeney urged the judge not to allow "raw information" concerning priests into the hands of reporters in "pell-mell fashion." "Turn on CNN and watch their hourly news update," Sweeney said. "You'll see what we mean."
But Erica Craven, an attorney representing The Chronicle and other news media, told the judge that the material attorneys exchange as part of the discovery process was "presumptively open" unless a protective order had been filed.
Sabraw's final ruling on the issue could come next week.
The judge is coordinating legal action in the "Clergy III" cases, the more than 150 Northern California lawsuits made possible by a state law temporarily suspending the statute of limitations during 2003 for adults seeking damages in decades-old abuse claims. Clergy I and Clergy II represent hundreds of similar claims in Los Angeles and San Diego.
Under the judge's tentative ruling Tuesday, medical, financial and psychiatric records of both priests and alleged victims would remain confidential, as would the employment records of plaintiffs, church documents "concerning religious doctrine" and the names of witnesses or other so-called non-parties, such as health care professionals.
But Sabraw tentatively ruled that the names of the alleged victims and the priests accused of molesting them should be made public. The judge said Wednesday that he wanted "symmetry" by disclosing the names on both sides.
Plaintiffs' attorney Terry Gross of San Francisco voiced concern about such a blanket approach, saying some plaintiffs in the cases were minors and had been institutionalized because of sexual abuse. "Many plaintiffs have a legitimate privacy interest," Gross told the judge.
Paul Gaspari, an attorney representing the Archdiocese of San Francisco, said the church had been "very mindful" of the desire of plaintiffs who wanted their identities kept confidential. "We have done our best to respect that," Gaspari said.
In a separate matter, Sabraw appointed retired Alameda County Superior Court Judge Richard Hodge on Wednesday to act as a special master and sort through an array of personnel files, psychotherapy reports and other documents to determine what might be admissible as evidence.
Last week, Sabraw ruled in one case that plaintiffs could seek punitive damages against the church, which could pave the way for other Clergy III suits.
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