Newspapers Seek Access to Abuse Records

Associated Press, carried in Hartford Courant [Hartford CT]
September 23, 2004

HARTFORD, Conn -- Several newspapers urged the state Supreme Court Wednesday to grant them access to sealed documents that detail allegations of sexual abuse by priests in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport.

Attorneys for The Hartford Courant, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Boston Globe said the public has a constitutional right under the First Amendment to see the records. Sealing orders expired when the diocese settled the lawsuits in 2001, they contend.

"The defendants can't say this order continues in effect to adversely effect the lives of 3,400,000 people in Connecticut," said Ralph Elliot, an attorney for The Courant.

But attorneys for the diocese and the priests said the sealing orders remain in effect and that vacating them would jeopardize efforts to protect sensitive and confidential information.

"The idea is really quite radical," said John Farley, an attorney for the diocese.

The high court heard arguments, but is not expected to issue a decision for several months.

The thousands of documents stem from 23 lawsuits against six priests spanning the late 1960s to the early 1990s. Most of the alleged victims were altar boys or belonged to church youth organizations.

The ruling could have implications for New York Cardinal Edward Egan, who handled the lawsuits when he was Bridgeport bishop. In Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law resigned after church records were released detailing his role in handling sexual abuse claims.

Egan has been criticized for failing to notify authorities of the abuse allegations and allowing the priests to continue working despite the allegations. Egan has defended his handling of the cases.

In most of the cases, the church was unable to actually produce any sealing orders, according to Elliot. Sealing orders only remain in effect if that is stipulated in the settlement, media attorneys said.

A Superior Court judge in 2002 ordered the documents released and was sharply critical of the role other Connecticut courts have played in the church sex-abuse scandal.

Judge Robert McWeeny said judges have enabled the church to keep sexual abuse complaints secret by sealing the files over the objections of the victims, delaying the trials, and encouraging plaintiffs to enter into settlement agreements containing confidentiality and nondisclosure provisions.

But the state Appellate Court rejected the charge and overturned that ruling last year, concluding that McWeeny had no authority to order the release of the documents.

The court ruled that newspapers did not act in a timely manner to request access to the files. State law limits the court's authority to open or set aside a judgment unless a motion is filed within four months after the judgment, the Appellate Court said.

The names of the all priests involved have been made public and they have been barred from the ministry, church officials have said.


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