How the Records Were Obtained

By Brooks Egerton
Dallas Morning News [Fort Worth TX]
November 29, 2006

The events that led to Tuesday's release of Fort Worth Catholic Diocese records began in 2003, when two Texas men filed a lawsuit alleging that the Rev. Thomas Teczar had sexually abused them when they were boys. They accused diocese officials of covering up the priest's prior misconduct in Massachusetts as part of a broader pattern of concealing clergy abuse.

Tarrant County state District Judge Len Wade oversaw the Teczar litigation and ordered the diocese to give the men records on seven other priests who had been accused of abuse. But the judge, at the diocese's request, sealed the records from the public and barred the accusers from discussing them publicly.

In 2005, The Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram asked Judge Wade to unseal the material, saying that Texas court records are by law public.

"The Morning News has a history of fighting in the courts to obtain information vital to public health and well-being," Editor Bob Mong said. "Our readers rightly expect as much of us. We also have a long and distinguished legacy of challenging the unnecessary sealing of important documents and records."

Lawyers for the diocese and the seven other priests sought to keep the records sealed, arguing that most of the clerics were no longer in ministry and were entitled to privacy. They have also maintained that there was no pattern of cover-up and that releasing the records would chill the free exercise of religion.

Early this year, Judge Wade agreed with the newspapers, which were represented by Dallas lawyer Paul Watler. The judge said he would release the records after blacking out the names of accusers and lay people who served on church review boards, along with health and financial information about the priests.

Dallas lawyer Tahira Khan Merritt, who won a $4.15 million settlement for the Teczar accusers in 2005, praised the release of the records. She described it as a victory for advocates of openness in the courts and in the Catholic Church, as well as for abuse victims.

Ms. Merritt also represents accusers of the late Rev. James Reilly. Last week, she won a settlement totaling more than $1 million for 11 Reilly victims. Several of her clients filed affidavits supporting the newspapers' legal case.

All of the priests in question served under Bishop Joseph Delaney, who died last year. His successor, Bishop Kevin Vann, decided this summer to stop fighting the newspapers in court and said he hoped the records' release would promote healing.


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