BishopAccountability.org
 
  Connecticut Supreme Court: Unseal Priest Abuse Documents

By Dave Altimar
Hartford Courant
May 23, 2009

http://www.courant.com/news/local/hc-priest-unsealed-0523.artmay23,0,5600649.story

For more than 15 years, some of the 23 lawsuits alleging sexual abuse claims against at least seven priests from the Bridgeport diocese have remained sealed, but on Friday for the second time the state Supreme Court ruled the public should have access to nearly all of the 12,675 pages.

As church officials criticized the court's decision and vowed to review all options to keep the files secret, victims' advocates hailed the ruling and questioned whether the documents will have a lasting negative impact on recently retired Cardinal Edward Egan, who ran the Bridgeport diocese as a bishop when many of the priest abuses were alleged to have occurred.

"Sadly, the history of this case has been about access by the secular media to internal church documents of cases more than 30 years ago to suggest, unfairly, that nothing has changed," the diocese's statement said.

"From the anti-church rhetoric of the first trial judge who proceeded to 'invent' an entirely new procedure to accommodate the press, to the lack of an impartial trial judge to reconsider the case on remand from the Connecticut Supreme Court, the history of this case raises issues that should be of concern to all. We are, therefore, currently reviewing our options in response to this decision."

That the church may continue the fight didn't surprise victim advocates who have battled across the country to get access to priest files.

"We know desperate church bureaucrats will fight to keep documents secret until the bitter end," said David Clohassy, national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Clohassy said the release of the Bridgeport documents is important for future cases as well as for public safety.

"These documents will likely expose current church employees who suspected child sex crimes and either ignored them or concealed them," Clohassy said.

Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, said church officials must know that the sealed files will taint Egan's reputation.

"It's hard to think of another case, except perhaps out in Los Angeles, where the church has fought so hard to keep files secret," McKiernan said. "It is going to be very interesting to see what is going to come out of those documents that the church felt would be so damaging."

Four newspapers, including The Courant, have been fighting since 2002 to get the files unsealed. Many of the lawsuits go back to the mid-1990s and were settled all at once in March 2001. However, the files were not destroyed and the newspapers went to court seeking intervenor status into the cases.

The court's decision Friday came after two years of deliberations, an unusually long time for the court to decide a case.

The court ruled that all but 15 documents in the 23 separate files are public records. Those 15 documents, at least two of which are depositions, were not submitted as legal documents and will remain sealed, the court ruled.

The justices rejected the church's main argument that Superior Court Judge Jon M. Alander, who ruled in 2006 that the files be unsealed, should have recused himself from making that decision because he was also serving at that time on a judicial committee reviewing public access to court documents.

The court ruled that just because Alander was a member of the task force did not mean that he couldn't be fair and impartial. It also ruled that just because one of the other members of the judicial task force was a reporter from The Courant didn't mean that Alander had a conflict.

"There is no reason to suggest that a judge who is exposed to information concerning potential future changes to the law while he is presiding over a case that implicates existing law in that area compromises his ability to be impartial," Justice Joette Katz wrote.

In his dissenting opinion, Judge William J. Sullivan wrote that any "person of ordinary intelligence and experience" could question Alander's impartiality.

"Judge Alander served as the chairman of the very committee that was charged with making the recommendations for these new policies and procedures, and he served on the committee with a representative of one of the intervenors in the case," Sullivan wrote.

Church officials in their statement said they were "deeply" disappointed that the court didn't uphold their conflict of interest claim involving Alander.

"The Connecticut Supreme Court has failed to uphold the Diocese's right to a fair adjudication of its claim by an impartial judge, Judge Jon Alander a right that is fundamental to any legal proceeding," the statement said.

This is the second time the case went before the Supreme Court since 2002. Judge Robert F. McWeeny, in Superior Court in Waterbury, first granted four newspapers The Courant, Boston Globe, New York Times and Washington Post the right to intervene in the closed cases and seek the documents.

The Bridgeport Roman Catholic Diocesan Corp. appealed that decision but lost as the court remanded the case back to the court in Waterbury, where Alander ruled in 2006 that the files should be public record.

Alander ruled that he didn't find compelling the argument by the diocese that the files remain sealed out of concern for ensuring a fair trial, should one become necessary. The diocese argued that this is a legitimate concern because two sex abuse lawsuits remain pending and future claims could be brought.

But Alander ruled the "right of access to those documents is particularly strong in these cases due to the extraordinary public interest in knowing whether minors in Connecticut were sexually abused by priests employed by the Diocese and whether the Diocese was responsible for perpetuating that abuse."

The diocese appealed that ruling, sending the case back to the state Supreme Court for the second time.

The abuse cases in question involved more than 23 victims. The Courant obtained copies of some of the sealed documents about a year after the settlement, including depositions taken of Egan, who was bishop of the Bridgeport diocese from 1988 to 2000, and other diocesan officials.

Egan was in charge of the Bridgeport diocese when most of the lawsuits against priests under his control were filed and adjudicated.

Stories detailing how Egan and other officials in Bridgeport ignored accusations or protected abusive priests were published in The Courant in 2002. The stories were based on depositions from the lawsuits, documents from the personnel files of accused priests and other diocesan memorandums.

Egan could not be reached for comment Friday. He retired as the archbishop of New York in April.

McKiernan said the timing on the heels of Egan's retirement also is interesting.

"I believe that the Vatican has known that someday these documents would become public and they wanted Egan to retire before that happened."

 
 

Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.