Gag Order in Salinas Priest Case Stiffs Public

The Salinas Californian
April 28, 2009

A Monterey County judge's decision on whether to issue a gag order in the case of a popular Salinas priest charged with sodomy with a 16-year-old boy is expected sometime this week - even today.

We vehemently object to a gag order in this case, both on principle and common sense.

As our attorney told the court in a written statement on Friday, "A gag order at this time in the proceeding would be an unconstitutional prior restraint" on the freedom of speech.

A gag order would bar "all attorneys, court officers and law enforcement officers from speaking with the media or discussing any facts or circumstances of the case."

In our view, the public has a right to know what evidence exists to support - or dispute - the priest's arrest.

At Friday's hearing, an attorney for the Rev. Antonio Cortes argued that because the prosecutor had given details of the case to the news media it could taint the process for jury selection and a fair trial for his client. The defense attorney also claimed his client is being tried in the press and that a media circus has been created around the case.

If a gag order is not issued, he argued, a change of venue for his client is inevitable.

Not so fast.

While the defense has raised some legitimate concerns, it provided no evidence that any sensitive or privileged material has been leaked. Nor has the defense shown that "a clear and present danger" or threat exists to hamper their defendant's right to a fair trial - which is months, if not a year, away.

The local news media has reported public record information available in court documents, affidavits, police reports, etc. The Salinas Californian, for example, has reported information from the court's open file as provided by prosecutors in some of its reporting in the case. On principle, the public's right to know is paramount in this case involving a Catholic priest accused of child molestation. The Catholic Church has been less than open in the past decade about its plague of molestation cases involving priests around the globe. Its shameful closed-door approach in those cases cannot stand. The Salinas community should insist on nothing less than a full-view public airing of the Cortes case. It's not about tabloid journalism but about the safety and sanity of community residents, particularly the parishioners of St. Mary of the Nativity Church.

Cortes, who has been suspended from his job as pastor of St. Mary's in Salinas, has been charged with one felony county of sodomy with a minor and 12 misdemeanor charges, including child molestation, furnishing a child with alcohol, child cruelty and performing an immoral act before a child.

On Friday, two more felony counts were added - possession of child pornography.

He has pleaded not guilty.

A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Friday. Cortes remains in county jail. His bail is $750,000.

Of course, Cortes is innocent until proven guilty. He deserves his day in court, his chance to be heard, and the public and the press need to keep an open mind about what he has to say.

Fighting a gag order is not about sensational headlines or newsrack sales. It's not about tabloid journalism. It's about openness in the judicial system and an access to public information.

It's about addressing public concern over serious questions raised about a priest's conduct. The public needs access to a free flow of information. The press provides this. A gag order stymies that access, barring key players in the case from discussing anything relating to the case, which keeps us from performing our duty in keeping the public informed.

The ill effect is that gag orders can be a form of censorship on key sources who can keep the public abreast of an issue - in this case, a high-profile court case - that is of great importance and concern to the Salinas community.

Where is the fairness in that?

A gag order will restrict the ability of The Californian and its news media colleagues from doing their job in this case. And that means our readers and the public will be denied access to information they have a right to know.


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