Judge Plans to Release Documents from Clergy Abuse Lawsuit
By Larry Parsons
The Monterey County Herald
November 13, 2013
More evidence may come to light from a clergy abuse lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Monterey that was settled last year for $500,000 before a trial.
Monterey Superior Court Judge Thomas Wills, in a preliminary decision released Wednesday, said he would allow the release of redacted depositions and some documents previously held under a protective pretrial order.
The evidence was gathered by the diocese and turned over to the court for the judge's personal inspection because the Monterey County Weekly wanted them released in the public interest.
The records fight came in a civil case in which a man identified as John R.J. Doe sued the diocese and former priest Edward Fitz-Henry alleging Fitz-Henry molested him in 2005 when he was a 14-year-old altar boy and choir member at Madonna del Sasso Church in Salinas.
The diocese settled with the plaintiff in 2012, and Fitz-Henry, who was never criminally charged in the matter, turned around and sued the diocese, alleging it had abandoned him. Fitz-Henry was suspended in 2011 when he was a popular pastor at Mission San Juan Bautista.
Attorneys for both Fitz-Henry and the diocese had opposed release of the documents. The weekly newspaper contended the original reason for keeping them from the public — to prevent tainting a possible jury pool — no longer applied since the case was settled.
An attorney for the unidentified victim supported making the documents public. Fitz-Henry contended he was not found liable of any wrongdoing and was the prevailing party.
In his decision, Wills delayed the potential release of the documents until after a Dec. 9 hearing on the issue. He also gave the parties 30 days to take the matter to an appeals court.
More than 800 pages of reviewed documents include transcripts of four depositions given by Fitz-Henry, another diocese priest, a retired diocese schools superintendent and a private investigator hired by the diocese. Other records include items from Fitz-Henry's personnel files, letters from parishioners, letters from the diocese and transcripts of interviews with the diocese's investigator.
The judge said the documents contain references "to names of one or more alleged victims of child abuse and their families." Allegations of misconduct were brought to the attention of one or more diocesan officials, the judge said.
"Whether the responses were appropriate or not is not at issue in this ruling — only whether disclosure of any information in the documents should be prohibited by court order," the judge said.
Wills said the "mere existence" of an allegation of wrongdoing may not establish an overriding public interest in making information about it public.
He said the balancing of interests "must be found in the court's file and in the documents in question themselves."
The judge said he would make the depositions public, except for portions that would embarrass or harm the privacy of third parties. He also ordered the release of many other documents with redactions.
Wills said the records indicate no one else who brought forward allegations of misconduct wanted his or her identity made public. He said the names of alleged minor victims and their families must remain protected, as well as some church personnel and parishioners.
That would still allow disclosure of "what actions were reported and what the capacity of the reporter, witness or recipient of information was," the judge said.
He also barred the release of information about consensual conduct between adults, and psychotherapy or psychological counseling.
Daniel De Vries, attorney for Fitz-Henry, said he hadn't seen the ruling but would welcome any ruling that "protects the individual privacy rights of any Californian, such as Father Fitz-Henry."
Fitz-Henry remains a priest without assignment, though the church has initiated proceedings to defrock him. De Vries said he didn't know where Fitz-Henry is living and isn't representing him in the church proceedings.
De Vries said the diocese and Fitz-Henry reached a confidential settlement about six months ago in his counter-suit with which Fitz-Henry was "very pleased."
Fitz-Henry was dismissed as a defendant in the underlying case, De Vries said.
Other attorneys in the case were unavailable or didn't return calls to The Herald.