Why We Fought to Get Names of Accused Priests
By Jeannine Guttman
Portland Press Herald [Maine]
June 12, 2005
When a newspaper takes an issue to court, when it fights to get information it believes to be public record and in the public interest, what journalistic values must be weighed if the newspaper prevails?
In other words, if the information is released, if the newspaper wins the legal debate, how do editors then decide what to publish? What principles must be considered? What standards must be met?
Those were questions we faced when we decided in July 2002 to pursue a legal claim against the state of Maine and the Attorney General's Office. We spent nearly three years in court, fighting to win access to the names of deceased priests who had been accused of sexual misconduct. It was a costly strategy, in terms of time and money, but one that we thought was worth the expense.
How did we end up in this protracted court battle?
In spring 2002, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland gave to state officials the names of priests accused of sexual misconduct. This was done so law enforcement officials could determine whether there was any criminal conduct that could be adjudicated.
All told, 51 names were given to state officials, including the names of 18 priests who had died. Once those documents were given to government officials, we believed the issue moved into the public arena. The information, we believed, had become public records.
We took that argument to court. We narrowed our request to records of the deceased priests, arguing that those cases were no longer active because the accused were dead. And, we argued, the dead have no claim to privacy.
In October 2003, a Superior Court judge ruled that the public interest in releasing the names outweighed any privacy rights of the people involved. The state appealed that decision.
In April 2005, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of the newspaper, ordering the state to release the names of the dead priests who had been accused of sexual misconduct. The names of the witnesses and purported victims would be redacted, or deleted, from the released files.
The issue of abuse by priests is one of the most critical social concerns of our time. Across the country, hundreds of victims have come forward. According to a new Associated Press report, since 1950 the U.S. Roman Catholic Church has spent more than $1 billion on settlements, legal fees, verdicts won by victims and treatment for victims. And many cases are still pending.
Much has changed, in terms of reforms and the way current abuse allegations are handled by the church and law enforcement agencies. But some victims still struggle with pain, shattered lives and wounds that don't seem to heal. And the church continues to recover from a tragic chapter in its history.
As Maine's largest newspaper, we wanted to know what the scope of clergy abuse was in this state. That's why we fought to have the records released. "We also argued in court that we wanted to know why nothing was prosecuted by the attorney general or the various county district attorneys," said our attorney, Sig Schutz of Preti, Flaherty LLP, which represented us. "This was critical to winning the case," he said.
Releasing the data was necessary for the public, as an informed citizenry, to understand "what its government is up to," the court's majority opinion said. "The records sought by (the newspaper) are necessary for the public to understand why the Attorney General exercised his discretion not to pursue criminal prosecutions in connection with the sexual abuse allegations," the court ruled.
VICTORY, THEN WORK
But winning access to the records wasn't the end of the reporting process for us. It was only the beginning.
The documents were made public on May 27. We published our first in-depth story, containing the name of one priest, on June 5.
We had been working on that story for more than a year, talking to some of the victims of the late Rev. Lawrence Sabatino. When the documents were unsealed, we discovered additional information about the priest and his victims. The AG's Office noted that this case was the worst in the files. The Catholic Church agreed with that judgment.
What's next? When the list of names was first released, we fielded calls from other media organizations, asking us what we planned to do. We've fielded the same question from victims' groups. Are we going to publish the names of all the deceased priests simply because we won the court case that made those names public?
No. That wouldn't be a responsible thing to do. The files contain allegations only. None of these claims has been proven or resulted in convictions.
That is why additional reporting work is required. In the Sabatino case, we confirmed details of the allegations with church officials, with law enforcement officials and with the victims. This kind of reporting work was needed to ensure that the claims were deemed credible.
"These stories can take a lot of work by the newspaper to bring to light, and they should," said reporter John Richardson, who wrote the Sabatino article. "But the really difficult work is done by the victims who speak out. Opening up about these painful memories and personal details is a courageous step.
"After we published the stories about Sabatino and his victims, a lot of readers, including some who said they also were abused as little girls, sent messages to thank the women who told their stories. It was very hard (for them) to relive those incidents."
In the Sabatino case, the disclosed records provided "more details about how he was moved from a parish in Lewiston to Portland," said city editor Andrew Russell, who directed much of the coverage. "They included documents from the diocese that detailed the complaints against him and the reprimands in his file.
"Throughout the reporting, we debated heavily the question of whether the stories were fair to Sabatino, the victims, the church, the AG's investigation," he said. "We made sure the complaints matched those that were contained in the AG's file. We allowed the church to explain, and acknowledge Sabatino's role in the sex-abuse scandal, and the church's handling of his priesthood. We spoke to a family member of the priest, and re-interviewed the victims who were willing to tell their stories on the record. We interviewed the AG about what they did, and did not do in the investigation."
In the Sabatino case, the allegations were highly detailed and the victims were numerous.
Not all claims against all of the deceased priests may meet that standard. That is clear from a review of the files. Some of the allegations are vague; some of the claims are made by a single person. That does not mean those claims aren't legitimate, but they may not meet our stringent standards for publication.
INVESTIGATION GOES ON
We are continuing to look at the information contained in the released records. We will examine each priest's case thoroughly. We will investigate the roles played by law enforcement and the church diocese. We will bring a high degree of deliberation, reporting and context to any story that we publish, based on these files.
"We owe it to our readers to thoroughly investigate each priest identified in the files as a potential abuser, to try to reach victims and vet each complaint, the diocese's handling of it, the state's investigation of it, fairly and objectively," said Russell. "There is no timetable for this type of reporting. It takes time, patience and perseverance.
"Only as we report the facts will future stories on this issue take shape. And only then will we be in a position to make a decision to publish a priest's name."
From the beginning, from the first legal brief we filed in this case, it was our intention to look at the released data from a journalistic standpoint. We would always apply our news standards to any decisions concerning publication.
It was not our intention to simply run a list of names in the newspaper. It was our intention to help bring clarity and context to this story, and to understand what happened here in Maine with the issue of abusive priests.
We believe access to these records has enabled us to begin to tell that story.
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