Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester NY]
April 21, 2021
By Sean Lahman
A federal judge has blocked an effort by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester to shield the identity of priests accused of sexual abuse during its bankruptcy procedure, after the Democrat and Chronicle objected to the practice.
Gannett Co. Inc., the parent corporation of the Rochester newspaper, filed a motion to intervene in the diocese’s bankruptcy proceeding “in order to enforce the public’s right of access.”
The diocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in September 2019, saying it could not afford to pay the compensation being demanded in a flood of new civil suits alleging sexual abuse by its priests in past decades. Hundreds of claims have been filed against the diocese as part of the bankruptcy process.
In February, the diocese asked the court to keep the names of alleged abusers named in those claims sealed from public view.
“While the Diocese has no intention of concealing the identity of confirmed perpetrators,” court papers said, “the Diocese respectfully submits that for public safety reasons it should be allowed to redact the address of any confirmed perpetrators, and the name and address of any alleged perpetrators, from any publicly filed certificates of service to reduce the risk of vigilantism or other breaches of the peace.”
Earlier this month, lawyers for Gannett filed a motion to intervene and argued that the information should remain open to the public. They argued that disclosing the identity of alleged abusers is an essential part of the process of addressing these claims.
“The Diocese’s attempts to silence abuse victims who have made the difficult decision to come forward with their allegations through public litigation and to keep information sufficient to identify accused perpetrators under wraps would not only fail to satisfy the strict First Amendment and common law requirements necessary to justify the nondisclosure requested, but would also perpetuate the very secrecy that has allowed the scandal to continue for generations,” the lawyers argued.
Victims’ identities remain shielded
The diocese objected to Gannett’s request to intervene, but on Thursday, U.S, Bankruptcy Judge Paul R. Warren ruled in favor of Gannett.
“In the church and in other organizations, it is secrecy that perpetuates the abuse of the vulnerable,” D&C Executive Editor Michael Kilian said.
“Given the extent of community concern over cases of sexual abuse involving priests and other leaders in the Diocese of Rochester, we are grateful the bankruptcy judge has allowed us to intervene going forward on First Amendment grounds when any request is made by the diocese to seal or shield from public view the identities of confirmed or alleged perpetrators of abuse.”
Kilian also made clear it is not the intention of the newspaper to publish the names of persons victimized in these cases.
The identity of abuse victims who come forward will remain under seal, a move to which Gannett did not object in court.
“It should be noted that the Newspaper has no objection to the Diocese’s request to keep victim-identifying information confidential to the extent such victims have not come forward in the public domain and/or have elected to litigate pseudonymously against the Diocese,” Gannett’s attorneys said in court documents. “In fact, as a matter of editorial policy and practice, the Newspaper does not publish the names, addresses, or other identifying information of victims of sexual abuse without their consent, and is not seeking to do so here. Nevertheless, the sex abuse scandal has rocked the Catholic community and the nation at large and, as such, is a matter of intense public concern and interest.”
The diocese’s purpose in filing Chapter 11 was to pull together funds to pay abuse claimants while the diocese retained enough assets to continue operations.
Rochester was the 20th American Catholic diocese to follow this path, all of them driven there largely by litigation over sexual abuse. Seven other dioceses have filed for Chapter 11 protection since Rochester, including the dioceses in Buffalo, Syracuse and Rockville Centre, Long Island.