|Evidence Missing from File of Sex Abuse Case
Lawyers for Some 50 Plaintiffs Charging Sexual Abuse by about a Dozen Catholic Priests Seek Depositions from a 1990 Settlement against the Diocese of Providence
By Mike Stanton
September 21, 1996
The legal saga of some 50 alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests took a strange turn yesterday when a state judge agreed to unseal a six-year-old court file - only to find the sought-after evidence wasn't there.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs are seeking depositions in an abuse lawsuit settled in 1990 against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence and former Rhode Island priest William C. O'Connell, who died in May in a New Jersey treatment center for sex offenders.
But when Superior Court Judge Richard Israel examined the file during yesterday's hearing, he found that the evidence had apparently been removed, by agreement of the parties.
Israel agreed to unseal the six thick folders still in possession of the court. But he left it to the lawyers for the current plaintiffs to ask lawyers in the earlier case for the missing materials.
Among the missing documents are depositions by Bishop Louis E. Gelineau and Auxiliary Bishop Kenneth Angell, portions of which were sealed in 1990 by order of Superior Court Judge Thomas H. Needham. Israel reserved judgment on whether to unseal that information.
Adding to the confusion was Israel's discovery that there was never an order from a judge sealing the entire court file - although court record-keepers had recently told lawyers for both sides that it was sealed.
In 1989, the Journal-Bulletin reported that sworn statements in the lawsuit - among those missing yesterday - indicated Gelineau had received warnings from several parishioners and at least two priests about O'Connell.
But early in 1990, before the case settled, the Superior Court clerk's office stamped the case files "confidential." No one would say who sealed the file. Court officials overruled a Journal-Bulletin protest to re-open it by citing a law that court records identifying victims of child molestation shall be confidential.
About 50 lawsuits are now wending their way through state and federal courts in Rhode Island, involving allegations of sexual abuse by about a dozen priests, some of whom have been charged or convicted of criminal offenses.
The suits also charge that Gelineau and other church leaders covered up and failed to act on instances of sexual misconduct by priests that were brought to their attention over the years.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that they should be entitled to examine the sealed deposition pages of Gelineau and Angell for information that could support their lawsuits by shedding light on church officials' actions.
"There is apparently evidence that a number of people tried to tell Bishop Gelineau on a number of occasions, but he failed to act," said Carl P. DeLuca, a lawyer for several plaintiffs.
William T. Murphy, a lawyer for Bishop Gelineau, said he didn't know why the materials were removed from the files. But he said the procedure was not unusual in closed cases involving voluminous material.
But DeLuca said he has seen a letter from another church lawyer, asking that the materials be withdrawn from the file.
"They not only sealed the file, they vacuumed it as well," said DeLuca.
Another lawyer for the church, James T. Murphy, said the church has no objection to releasing information if no one's privacy is violated.
But the privacy concerns could be moot.
DeLuca said the woman and her son, who initially sued anonymously, have told him they have no objection to opening the file. Furthermore, Kathy Guilfoyle, the Narragansett woman who filed suit with her son, broke her silence in 1994, after O'Connell was arrested in New Jersey on sexual assault and pornography charges.
Guilfoyle told reporters then she was breaching a gag order imposed in the settlement - in which the church agreed to pay $ 1 million - because she was angry with Bishop Gelineau for not telling people in New Jersey that O'Connell had moved there. The bishop said he didn't know of O'Connell's whereabouts.
O'Connell, who pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct in New Jersey, had pleaded no contest in Rhode Island in 1986 to criminal charges stemming from the abuse of three boys, including Guilfoyle's son.
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