Should the Cabinets Be Kept Shut?

By Linda P. Campbell
Star-Telegram [Fort Worth TX]
August 18, 2005

Could the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth have chosen a more ironic argument for keeping secret the files concerning eight priests accused of sexual abuse than this: the victims' privacy is at stake?

Certainly, those who accused the priests have a privacy interest in records that a Tarrant County court might make public. But forgive me for wondering whether the diocese ought to be entrusted with protecting the best interests of those individuals.

During a hearing last week, lawyers representing the diocese, one of the priests and the Star-Telegram and The Dallas Morning News debated whether the files should be made open to the public -- a ling-ering issue in a lawsuit that the diocese settled in the spring for $4.15 million plus $994,000 in legal fees.

Paul Watler, representing the newspapers, made several legal arguments on which the case might turn.

For instance, privacy rights belong person-ally to individuals. As such, the diocese has no legally recognized privacy rights of its own, and it has no legal standing to argue for protecting the privacy rights of others, either the victims or the priests. Besides, he said, the newspapers aren't interested in the victims' identifying information, just other details in the documents.

Watler also argued that the files became part of the court record when they were attached to a document filed by the two men who had sued the diocese on allegations that they had been sexually abused by the Rev. Thomas Teczar in the early 1990s. (He has denied abusing them.) Under Texas law, court records are considered public unless there is a good reason to seal them.

Even if the files aren't court records, Watler argued, keeping them secret would be detrimental to the public health or safety -- a standard contained in the law that sets out procedures for sealing court records.

Perhaps the strongest argument for granting access derives from this health/safety component: They have great potential value for helping the victims and the public generally to understand the scope of the alleged wrongdoing and the specific response by church officials in each case.

"It's a bigger question than just these priests," Watler said. "Is the public entitled to evaluate and judge for itself?"

In June, not long before then-Bishop Joseph Delaney died, he released the names of the eight priests, though four of them already had become known. But his refusal to provide particulars about the allegations left many questions about the extent of the problem in each case, the way the diocese handled the allegations and the extent to which any of the claims were verified.

In some of the cases, the accused priests have publicly denied wrongdoing. In some cases, the accused died before the allegations were made public.

During the hearing, attorney Mark Hatten argued on behalf of the diocese that the public already has enough information and that there is no lingering danger.

Three of the priests -- the Rev. James Reilly, the Rev. James Hanlon and the Rev. William Hoover -- have died. The Rev. John Howlett lives in Ireland and isn't allowed in public unaccompanied, and three -- Teczar, the Rev. Philip Magaldi and the Rev. Rudolf Renteria -- are no longer in the ministry.

In fact, some accusations have been reported in great detail, but little has come out about others.

Reilly was the pastor at St. Maria Goretti in Arlington for almost two decades, the last 16 years while my family belonged to the parish. Awful as it was to learn about the accusations, it's difficult to come to terms with them without a fuller explanation.

The Rev. Joseph Tu Ngoc Nguyen is the only one among the eight who continues in the ministry, in the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese. After the Fort Worth diocese released his name, his religious order said he had been cleared of abusing minors. His attorney, Allen Pennington, argued at the hearing that keeping his file sealed didn't harm public safety.

The Fort Worth diocese insists that any interest in further public disclosure from any of the files is outweighed by considerations of privacy, of attorney-client communications, of medical and employment records, of church-state relations.

Hatten said that the 726 pages in the files include mental health evaluations, a polygraph report, counseling records and the names of lay people who helped review complaints.

Even if victims' identities aren't released, he said, "I still don't think there's enough protection of these victims."

No doubt the files contain highly sensitive material that could be embarrassing and painful -- to victims and their families, as well as to the priests and their families. More than that, the documents could prove humil-iating to diocesan officials who might have shown poor judgment, been in denial or committed outright deception.

The Fort Worth diocese now has strong procedures in place to guard against sexual abuse of children. But that wasn't always the case.

State District Judge Len Wade has no easy task in cutting through this legal and emotional thicket and properly weighing the many substantial interests involved.

Watler argued that Wade shouldn't simply trust that the diocese has taken adequate corrective measures to protect the public. "The diocese essentially is asking you to take a leap of faith," Watler said.

But a "leap of faith" shouldn't be the basis for a court ruling. The faithful and other members of the public can decide whether to take that leap -- after they have all the facts that appropriately can be disclosed from the files.