Shine the Spotlight on the Sealed Court Files
By Seth Langson
Seth H. Langston
May 7, 2016
One of the most important lessons taught by the movie “Spotlight” was the critical role that the media can and must play in exposing the scope of the Catholic Church’s child sex abuse scandal. The crucial step that media should take is to seek to open all of the “sealed files” that have arisen out of priest sex abuse litigation.
It is a basic tenet of our judicial system, that our legal system should be open to all and subject to the scrutiny of society. That is why trials are open to the public. The only way that people will trust the process is through transparency. The validity of any Court decision can only be fairly judged when we know what evidence that the Court based its opinion on.
Despite our society’s commitment to open courts, many of the documents that would shed the most light on Catholic sex abuse, remain hidden and inaccessible to the public. At the request of the Catholic Church, Courts have frequently “sealed” those portions of the sex abuse litigation files that contain the Church’s own documents that reveal the scope of priest sex abuse scandal.
Unfortunately, this is precisely what occurred in the most recent lawsuit that we filed against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte. These cases involved allegations of child sexual abuse by Father Richard Farwell and Father Joseph Kelleher, as well as claims that the Charlotte Diocese transferred child abusing priests, destroyed documents and acted in other ways to protect child abusing priests. . Every piece of paper produced by the Diocese to us was stamped “confidential.” The Court then ordered that all of those documents had be protected from the public view as well as all of the evidence that we filed to support our allegations of misconduct, also had to be filed under seal. This included the Plaintiff’s Brief in Opposition to the Diocese’ Motion for Summary Judgment. This brief contained a detailed and extensive analysis of the Church’s “confidential” documents, as well as other evidence that we had obtained from other sources.
When one of the cases was appealed, the Court of Appeals also ordered that the entire record of the case could not be seen by the public.
The spotlight is on the media to ensure that the principles of open courts and the exercise of free speech be upheld. Here in Charlotte, as in many other cities across the country, the media failed miserably. Instead of vigorously contesting all efforts to maintain secrecy in court proceedings, they’ve sat silently and allowed the public’s right to know to be trampled.
Let the Spotlight Continue to Shine
The sordid truths exposed by the Boston Globe about the Archdiocese of Boston as so movingly depicted by “Spotlight” should act as a springboard for the peeling back of the judicially imposed veils of secrecy.
However, it is not too late spread the light and to reveal the Catholic Church’s darkest secrets. Newspapers and other media should file motions to open these secret files in every court that allowed this secrecy about the child abuse scandal of the Catholic Church. We can only change the future if we let the people see the past. The Spotlight must still shine bright.