Media, Bridgeport Diocese Debate Abuse Documents
By Lynne Tuohy
Hartford Courant [Connecticut]
September 23, 2004
The media's battle to gain access to reams of court documents in the Bridgeport priest sex abuse lawsuits was waged Wednesday before the state Supreme Court, where a lawyer for the diocese described the odd procedural history of the case as "unrecognizable."
"We just have never seen this animal before," said attorney John B. Farley, who represents the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport.
The case pits the First Amendment against sealing orders that are over a decade old and a state law that says civil court cases can only be reopened and revised within four months of final judgment in a case. The 23 lawsuits against the Bridgeport diocese were withdrawn in March 2001, after the church agreed to pay about $12 million to settle the cases.
A year later, The New York Times filed a motion to intervene and gain access to documents in the case. That was a month after a judge in Boston unsealed thousands of pages of documents and transcripts in the priest scandals involving John J. Geoghan and others. The Times was soon joined in its efforts by The Courant, The Washington Post and the Boston Globe.
Superior Court Judge Robert F. McWeeny agreed to hear the motion to gain access and created a new case file to address the issue of the sealed files. In May 2002 he ordered that the files be unsealed a week later, stating that the "judicial system should not be party to a cover-up." Diocesan lawyers immediately appealed, and the Appellate Court suspended McWeeny's order pending the outcome.
The Appellate Court overruled McWeeny and criticized his remarks as "misguided." They said McWeeny had no authority to set up a new file.
The newspapers appealed to the state Supreme Court.
"The Appellate Court decision is so fundamentally wrong," attorney Ralph G. Elliot, representing The Courant, argued. He said the state law setting a deadline of four months to reopen a judgment doesn't apply because the newspapers are not seeking to reopen or revise anything.
"All we want to do is see the files in which those judgments or withdrawals appear," Elliot said.
Both Elliot and attorney Jon Albano, who represents the other three newspapers, argued that the sealing orders expired at the time judgment was entered in the cases, which lawyers for the diocese and five "John Doe" priests who were not defendants in the case sharply dispute.
"What we have here is a status [of secrecy] imposed on these documents. When the cases ended, the status remained," said Farley, representing the diocese. "Four months later, the court lost its authority to do anything."
Farley argued that the case isn't even legitimately before the court, because the newspapers were never granted intervenor status.
Farley and Justice Richard N. Palmer debated whether McWeeny's creation of the new file was the functional equivalent of restoring the old cases to the docket, and also how McWeeny could have acted in the first place on a motion without granting intervenor status. Palmer asked Farley to characterize what transpired.
"It's a nullity. It's an unrecognizable proceeding," Farley replied.
Albano noted that the original trial judge in the lawsuits explicitly rejected the diocese's request for protective orders to protect the privacy and reputation of the named defendants. Judge Bruce Levin instead said the sealing orders were designed to ensure the court's ability to empanel a jury that had not been tainted by publicity.
Chief Justice William J. Sullivan presided over the panel of five judges that heard Wednesday's arguments, even though he is named as a defendant in another challenge to sealed files originally brought by the American Lawyer Media, publishers of the Connecticut Law Tribune, and later joined by The Courant.
Chief Court Administrator Joseph Pellegrino is also named as a defendant in that case. Yet, Sullivan designated Judge Thomas Parker, who is Pellegrino's deputy chief court administrator, to sit on the panel that heard Tuesday's appeal on the priest files. Elliot raised no objection to the panel's composition.
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