Confidentiality in Sex Abuse Case Argued in Court

By Scott McMillion
Chronicle [Livingston MT]
February 22, 2006

LIVINGSTON - Lawyers for the Church of God here must provide more detailed rationale if they want to keep certain information confidential in a sexual abuse case involving a former minister accused of fondling three local girls.

Mike Milodragovich, who represents the national and regional bodies of the Church of God, is seeking a protective order that would keep lawyers from including certain information in the court file, which would make that information public record.

Mark Hartwig, the attorney who represents the three girls, argued Tuesday that the church had taken a "shotgun approach" in its efforts to keep certain information secret.

He added that he likely would have no problem blocking some things from the court record, such as the addresses and phone numbers of some witnesses.

Attorney Mike Meloy represented the Bozeman Daily Chronicle in the hearing. The Chronicle seeks to keep court hearings as open as possible.

Park County District Court Judge Nels Swandal on Tuesday allowed the Chronicle "intervener" status in the case, but only in regard to the specific issue of which information is to be made public.

The issue concerns "prediscovery," a process in which opposing lawyers tell each other much of what they know about a case. It is designed to define areas of conflict and areas of agreement before a case enters the trial phase, thereby helping the process move forward.

Milodragovich argued in court briefs that his clients could be required to disclose "internal church policies and procedures, the minutes of private board meetings, and comments by named defendants which were made in private settings and may be of a sensitive nature."

He maintained in court that putting out too much information for public examination could taint the jury pool in Park County.

"That's our jury pool," he said. "They all read the newspapers. If they don't read them, they discuss them in the bars."

If Milodragovich has specific concerns, he should address them specifically, Hartwig maintained in court.

"I agree that it's kind of a shotgun approach," Swandal said.

He gave Milodragovich 20 days to provide him with the specific type of information he wants sealed. He said he will rule on the motion after that.

Meloy, a first amendment and open government specialist, urged Swandal to be careful about setting a precedent of allowing lawyers to request the silencing of information uncomfortable to their clients.

Hartwig's case maintains the Church of God ostracized his clients and their parents from the church community but did not punish the pastor, Terence Passmore. Rather, the church gave him counseling and advised the parents of the the girls that the incidents did not need to be reported to police, according to the suit.

Alan Baris, Passmore's attorney, said Tuesday the charges are "totally baseless," that his client didn't abuse any of the girls and that he never received counseling from the church.

Passmore resigned from the clergy shortly after the incident and is now a computer specialist in Virginia, Baris said. He is married and has four children.

The alleged assaults took place in 1998 on church property and in public swimming pools, when the girls were 12 and 14 years old.

The suit seeks $3.7 million, plus punitive damages.


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