High Court Won't Block Release of Priest Sex Abuse Documents

By Dave Altimari
Hartford Courant
October 5, 2009,0,1888257.story

[with links to documents pertaining to this issue]

The U.S. Supreme Court denied a request by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport to temporarily keep sealed court documents from clergy sex abuse cases.

The interim ruling, not only means the documents could be unsealed soon, but also appears to signal that the court will not take up the diocese's appeal of a Connecticut State Supreme Court ruling that the documents should indeed be public.

The diocese has sought the temporary stay to keep the more than 12,600 pages of court files sealed until the high court decided whether to hear their case.

- PDF: Bridgeport Diocese's writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court

- ACLU Court Brief In Support Of Bridgeport Diocese

"It seems unlikely that the Supreme Court would not issue the stay if they were going to take up the full case," an attorney involved with the legal proceedings said.

Diocesan lawyers asked conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, whose son is a priest, to reconsider their appeal to keep the documents sealed until the high court rules on whether to take up their case. Earlier this month, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg denied the diocese's request to keep the documents sealed for now.

Scalia forwarded the request to all nine justices who held a meeting about the diocese for a stay and numerous other legal matters in other unrelated cases on Tuesday.

The diocese has been fighting for several years to keep the documents sealed and the appeal to the nation's highest court is likely its last legal option. The diocese has hired a New York law firm, Mayer Brown LLP, in addition to its Connecticut counsel, to produce a writ of certiorari, the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Church officials have declined to say publicly how much they have spent in legal fees on this case.

But Bishop William Lori in an interview with the The Courant said the diocese has used funds that are budgeted for annual administrative and legal expenses.

"We've been pretty lucky we've had lots of work done pro bono and also at discounted legal rates," Lori said. "We've also had a couple of gifts come in because believe it or not there are people who agree that this is important."

The 50-page writ of certiorari seeks to have the U.S. Supreme Court accept the case, in hopes it will overturn the state Supreme Court ruling that the files are public documents.

The main argument the diocese is making is that releasing the sealed files would violate its First Amendment rights "that a church may not be compelled to disclose internal documents relating to hierarchical determinations regarding fitness for ministry."

The diocese argues the original lawsuits sought to hold Bishop Edward Egan and his predecessor, Bishop Walter Curtis, liable for their ministry-assignment decisions of priests accused of sexual abuse - decisions that occurred after psychiatric evaluation, confession, and assertions of reform and rehabilitation.

The diocese's second legal argument is that the Connecticut Supreme Court developed an overly broad view of what constitutes a legal document.

The diocese announced it had settled 23 lawsuits for an undisclosed amount in 2001. The suits alleged sexual misconduct by eight Bridgeport Diocese priests.

Four newspapers, including The Courant, went to court in 2002 seeking to have the files reopened and to keep them from being destroyed. The Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled twice that the files are public.

Among the court documents are three depositions by then-Bishop Egan, who was in charge of the Bridgeport Diocese when most of the lawsuits against priests under his control were filed and adjudicated. Egan recently retired as the archbishop of New York.

There's also a deposition from Curtis as well as the personnel files on all of the priests involved in the lawsuits.

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 some of the secret court documents that the paper obtained on its own.


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