Delays Release of Diocese Sex Abuse Documents
By Virginia Hennessey
An appellate court has delayed at least temporarily
the release of documents in the child sexual abuse case
involving the Rev. Edward Fitz-Henry.
A two-judge panel from the 6th District Court of
Appeals granted the Catholic Diocese of Monterey's request to
halt Monterey County Superior Court Judge Thomas Wills' December
order unsealing documents in the lawsuit by "John R.J. Doe." The
lawsuit was settled before trial with the diocese paying the man
$500,000. All records turned over to his attorney during
discovery remained sealed.
Justices Franklin Elia and Miguel Marquez stayed
Will's decision pending further review of a petition to
permanently reverse it.
The diocese's lawyers argued the records were never
submitted as evidence in court. They only turned them over in
discovery without a legal battle because the plaintiff's
attorney said he would not share them with the media. The court
agreed to the protective order to ensure the jury pool would not
In May, more than a year after the case settled, the
Monterey County Weekly moved to lift the protective order,
arguing its justification was no longer valid and it was in the
public's interest to know Fitz-Henry's history in terms of child
molestation, what the diocese knew about it, and what it did in
Wills agreed, ordering the records released with
redactions to protect the privacy of third parties. He stayed
his own ruling to provide lawyers for Fitz-Henry and the diocese
time to appeal. Daniel DeVries, the priest's attorney, said his
client supports the church's petition to reverse the order, but
could not afford to pursue it himself.
The plaintiff in the underlying lawsuit, now in his
early 20s, claimed Fitz-Henry molested him when he was a
14-year-old altar boy and choir member at Madonna del Sasso
Church in Salinas. When the lawsuit was filed in 2011,
Fitz-Henry was the popular pastor of Mission San Juan Bautista.
Delving into the claims, the church's investigator concluded
there had previously been a credible claim of sexual abuse by
Fitz-Henry involving another youth.
DeVries said in December that Fitz-Henry voluntarily
stepped away from his assignment in San Juan Bautista and
counter-sued the diocese after it quickly settled with the
plaintiff. The priest's lawsuit was settled, said the attorney,
with the diocese making a payment to Fitz-Henry and the alleged
victim covering his legal costs.
In his petition to the 6th District Court of Appeal,
the diocese's attorney, Brendan Begley, again argued that
releasing the records would violate the privacy rights of the
church and others. He said the records, which include
depositions and Fitz-Henry's personnel file, are not public
record because they were never filed as evidence. And he said
the alleged victim's lawyer "lulled" the diocese with promises
he would not release the documents and was now using the Weekly
as a means to publicize them.
"The impact from the plaintiff's back-peddling will be
immediate and devastating on (the diocese) as (it) will be
forced to submit to media bashing based upon an incomplete
record or 'try the case in the press,'" he wrote. The diocese
"will be forced to choose between the specter of responding
publicly ... or risk the danger that a 'no comment' statement
will be seriously misconstrued.
"Either way," he said, the diocese "is sure to face a
deluge of negative press coverage from the Weekly without any
semblance of an even playing field."
In his opposition to the petition, the Weekly's
attorney, Roger Myers, said Wills had protected the privacy
rights of third parties by issuing detailed instructions for
redacting the records. The diocese, he argued, does not have a
fundamental right of privacy.
Myers said the diocese failed to show the required
"good cause" for keeping the records sealed. Wills, he argued,
had correctly concluded the public's interest lay not only with
the potential danger posed by Fitz-Henry, but also in what the
diocese knew and "what action, if any, was taken in response."
He said Wills' ruling was supported by courts around
the country that have found "extraordinary public interest" in
the release of records surrounding abuse by Catholic priests and
what dioceses did to protect children. The Archdiocese of
Chicago, he noted, was recently required to release thousands of
pages of documents detailing abuse over decades there.
The 6th District's website did not indicate when a
final ruling was anticipated.