Judge to Rule on Releasing Information in Priest Sex Abuse Cases
By Tom Olsen
September 11, 2014
With a trial just months away, the Diocese of Duluth went to court Thursday in an attempt to prevent the potential public release of decades' worth of documents and depositions of top church officials related to priest sex abuse cases.
Two alleged abuse victims are suing the diocese, and their attorneys have made it clear that they intend to release documents and depositions that are obtained during the pre-trial discovery process -- a plan that has drawn sharp criticism from attorneys for the diocese.
St. Louis County District Judge David Johnson heard about 20 minutes of oral arguments from attorneys before taking the matter under advisement. He did not ask any specific questions of the attorneys and gave no indication of how he would rule. The judge said a written decision would be issued "soon."
The files on the accused priests have not yet been obtained by the plaintiffs' attorneys, and no depositions have been taken at this time, but the pretrial discovery process is expected to ramp up soon as the first case heads to trial in February.
The plaintiffs, identified in court documents as Doe 5 and Doe 28, allege abuse several decades ago by now-deceased priests John Nicholson and Robert Klein. The suits claim that the diocese was negligent in handling sex abuse cases and seeks the release of files on credibly accused priests.
Susan Gaertner , the Minneapolis attorney representing the diocese, told the judge: "We shouldn't have to be here today.
" She said the diocese was forced to ask the court for the protective order because the plaintiffs' attorneys have categorically refused to enter into a standard agreement keeping discovery material confidential.
"Plaintiffs' counsel is attempting to use the discovery as part of a larger narrative involving other cases that have nothing to do with Doe 5, Doe 28 or the diocese," Gaertner said.
Under Gaertner's proposal, attorneys for both parties would be allowed to designate certain discovery material as confidential, limiting it to use in the ongoing litigation.
The plaintiffs are represented by Jeff Anderson and Associates, a St. Paul law firm that is nationally known for representing victims of childhood sexual abuse. The firm has aggressively pursued church documents and taken depositions of top officials in numerous cases, frequently releasing materials to its website and issuing press releases.
Anderson, who argued on behalf of the abuse victims, told the judge that the release of documents describing abuse allegations, and the actions of top officials, is "imperative to public safety and the protection of children."
"We have a serious problem with their request for a blanket protective order that would restrict access to information that the public needs to know," Anderson said.
Anderson did not dispute the fact that his firm has a predilection for releasing documents obtained through lawsuits.
"I've been at this for 30 years on behalf of survivors," he said. "I've found that the best way to protect the community is to expose the offenders and those who choose to protect them."
Other dioceses have routinely asked judges for similar protective orders in other lawsuits, but Anderson said he is not aware of a judge ever granting such a request.
The Rev. Eric Hastings, chancellor of the Diocese of Duluth, said the diocese's request to keep some materials under seal is standard in such cases and in the interest of justice.
"Our motions today are based on our commitment to see justice done by preserving the integrity of the legal process so that -- should this case go before a jury -- those individuals can apply their judgments to the evidence and testimony offered in court," Hastings said in a statement.
"Every party to this case -- the plaintiff, those offering testimony as witnesses and the diocese -- should be afforded the same legal standard, namely, a fair, unbiased presentation of the facts in a court of law," Hastings said.
Verne Wagner, the northern Minnesota director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, sued the diocese more than a decade ago over reported abuse he suffered from Nicholson in the 1960s at St. Rose Catholic Church in Proctor.
Wagner, who attended Thursday's hearing, again called for the diocese to release its files on accused priests. He said the secrecy of the church's actions in handling abuse allegations has allowed countless other children to be victimized.
"The only way we're going to protect children is by these men's actions to get this out in the open," he said of the efforts led by Anderson and fellow attorney Mike Finnegan.
Anderson said discovery materials should be turned over by the diocese soon after the judge issues a ruling on the diocese's motion. If the judge allows, Anderson said his firm would publicly release documents and any depositions that may be taken of church officials.
The Doe 5 case is scheduled to go before a jury in February, and the Doe 28 case in December 2015. Both lawsuits were brought under a state law passed last year that allows for an extension of the statute of limitations for past victims of abuse to file lawsuits.