Church Files Will Be Released
By Max B. Baker
February 24, 2006
FORT WORTH - State District Judge Len Wade agreed Thursday to release documents from the Fort Worth Roman Catholic Diocese concerning clerics accused of abusing children, but only after he reviews the records, removing information that would identify accusers and church lay workers.
Information about the six clerics' personal finances, as well as their medical and mental-health treatment, will not be included in the records that Wade plans to release to attorneys representing the accusers or to the news media, Wade said.
Wade did not decide how to handle the records of the Rev. Joseph Tu Ngoc Nguyen of Houston. He has been accused of having inappropriate contact with several girls and young women while working at St. Matthew Catholic Church in Arlington. He is the only one of the accused clerics still actively involved in the ministry.
Wade didn't indicate how soon the records will be released because he plans to review every page. Attorneys involved said the files apparently include about 600 pages of employment records.
The Star-Telegram and The Dallas Morning News asked Wade to release the documents as part of their ongoing coverage of child abuse allegations against priests. The records were sealed as part of a lawsuit in which two men accused the Rev. Thomas Teczar of abusing them during the 1990s when they lived in Ranger. Last year, the diocese reached a $4.15 million settlement in the case; Teczar denies the abuse allegations.
"I think the judge made a very important ruling today in favor of public disclosure," said Paul Watler, the newspapers' attorney. "There was a public interest that had to be taken into balance along with the risk that sealing the records would have had an adverse impact on public safety."
Diocesan attorney Mark Hatten said he didn't want to comment immediately on the judge's ruling.
In a letter to the attorneys Tuesday, Wade made a preliminary determination that the documents should be part of the court record, leaving attorneys for the diocese and the priests to try to persuade him to seal the records.
Roland Johnson, the Fort Worth attorney representing six of the priests and their estates, said his clients are either dead, in an assisted-living center or retired from the priesthood and are no longer a danger to the public. He also said that extensive news media coverage has provided the public with more information than is available on registered sex offenders.
"The bell has already been rung on any alarm," Johnson said. "Anything that needs to be in the public is already out."
H. Allen Pennington Jr., Tu's attorney, said the two girls involved in that case said that the priest kissed them but that they never accused him of sexual abuse. Pennington said they don't want to be involved in the current case or in the resulting "media circus." He also said the Houston congregation has been told about the allegations against the priest.
"These ladies do not want their names in the press or in the courtroom," Pennington said.
Tu was removed from St. Matthew in 1993 after the accusations by the two girls. An internal investigation concluded that he did not abuse the girls. However, three women have accused him of sexual misconduct against them during the 1970s and 1980s, when they were young adults. A fourth woman has also said that Tu abused her at her home during the 1970s when she was 13.
During the hearing, Hatten argued that the diocese has been proactive in dealing with sexual abuse cases by swiftly investigating allegations and acting when warranted. He said that since 2000, the diocese has trained at least 12,000 people to identify and report suspected sexual abuse. He also argued against blaming the local diocese for the church's actions elsewhere.
"There is no evidence the newspapers have provided to show there is a future threat," Hatten said. "What has happened in the past and elsewhere is irrelevant."
But Mary Grant, western regional director for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, urged the judge to release the information.
"The more parents know about child molesters, the better able they'll be to safeguard their kids," she said.
Max B. Baker, (817) 390-7714 email@example.com
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