|Judge Bars Access to Transcripts in Priest Sex Abuse Cases
By David O'Reilly, John P. Martin, Craig R. McCoy
July 26, 2011
Three days after Philadelphia prosecutors publicly filed secret grand jury testimony by archdiocesan officials about priest sex abuse, a judge on Monday barred open access to the thousands of pages of transcripts.
Common Pleas Court Judge Lillian Ransom ordered that the documents "may not be released to anyone from the press or the general public." Her order is in effect until a hearing is held at some unspecified date. Until then, she ordered, "these records have been impounded by the court."
The District Attorney's Office on Friday introduced the material, from 2002 through 2004, into its case involving a former aide to Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua. The Inquirer obtained copies of the former archbishop's voluminous testimony before the courthouse closed, and published a story about it Sunday.
When reporters returned Monday morning to read the additional grand jury testimony of two bishops, a monsignor, and several current or former priests accused of abuse, court clerks denied access to the file, saying they were following Ransom's instructions.
Ransom's order was placed in the docket late Monday. The order provided no rationale. She took the action unilaterally and on her own authority. Defense lawyers had not sought to bar the public from seeing the material.
Ransom issued her order after lawyers for The Inquirer sent her a letter objecting to the court's refusal to release the transcripts earlier in the day.
In interviews, legal experts said the release of grand jury transcripts is rare and might be unprecedented in cases involving clergy sex abuse.
The District Attorney's Office explained in its filing that it was introducing the grand jury transcripts as evidence of conspiracy in its case against Msgr. William J. Lynn, the Philadelphia archdiocese's former secretary for clergy, and three current or former priests and an ex-teacher.
Lynn is charged with endangering children by recommending parish assignments of known abusers during his 12 years as head of the clergy office. The others allegedly raped or sodomized two boys in the 1990s.
Child endangerment is a felony if prosecutors can establish that a defendant colluded with others over a long period in ways that put children at risk.
If the conspiracy case is allowed to proceed, Lynn, 60, would be the first member of the Catholic hierarchy in the nation to stand trial for such crimes.
In their Friday filing, prosecutors said that the grand jury testimony by Bevilacqua and other church leaders eight years ago provides evidence of collusion and conspiracy.
"Their methods are revealed only in thousands of pages of documentary evidence," prosecutors asserted, "and in the church officials' dissembling, inconsistent, blame-shifting, and evasive answers over numerous days of testimony."
The decision to include grand jury testimony in a public court filing was "extraordinary and unprecedented," said Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., lawyer who has deposed bishops and church officials in scores of lawsuits against Catholic dioceses.
"It's a good thing," said Anderson, who has never had access to grand jury testimony. "Every time those secrets become known, it really serves the public interest and public safety."
In Cleveland in 2004, reporters and open-records advocates lost a battle to unseal tens of thousands of pages of grand jury documents that identified more than 140 priests and church employees who were suspected of abuse but never charged.
In Boston, a grand jury grilled former Cardinal Bernard Law for two days in 2003, months after he resigned in the wake of the abuse scandal there. His testimony has never been made public.
"It's not unusual for deposition transcripts [in lawsuits and criminal cases] to find their way into the public domain," said Terry McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, an advocacy group that has catalogued hundreds of cases of clergy abuse. "To my knowledge, this is the first time that actual [grand jury] transcripts have ever found their way into the public domain."
Marci Hamilton, a legal adviser to the first Philadelphia grand jury, also represents alleged abuse victims in lawsuits pending against the Philadelphia archdiocese. She called Bevilacqua's testimony "one of the best pieces of evidence" in a long-running investigation that led to a second grand jury report last February.
Hamilton defended the prosecutors' decision to release all of Bevilacqua's testimony. "Unless you release the full transcript, there would be a rush to try to reinterpret what was provided," Hamilton said. "I don't think the D.A.'s Office had any choice."
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