Judge to rule later on whether archdiocese must turn over electronic data on abuse allegations
By Amy Forliti
June 25, 2014
ST. PAUL, Minnesota — A Ramsey County judge said Wednesday that he wants more information before deciding whether the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minnesota must turn over electronic data, such as emails, texts and hard drive information, on priests who have been accused of sexual abuse.
Attorneys for victims are seeking the electronic files as part of a lawsuit that claims the archdiocese created a public nuisance by keeping secret the names of accused priests. The victims' attorneys say access to original electronic documents will help them verify who had information about potential abusers, and when they had it.
"The impression I get from all of this is, this is a little bit of a mining process, looking for smoking guns," Judge John Van de North said.
The attorneys want the "native form" of the documents, which will allow them to see when the data may have been produced or updated. Such computer-generated information, or metadata, is not on paper documents, according to an affidavit by computer forensic expert Mark Lanterman, who was hired by victims' attorney Jeff Anderson. A forensic review would also allow plaintiffs to see if documents have been deleted.
While Van de North said the request for electronically stored information, or ESI, has merit, he also noted the archdiocese has asked that the public nuisance claim be dismissed — and he wants to hear arguments on that issue first to see whether this request would be relevant going forward. That hearing is set for July 21.
"I'm generally inclined to allow ESI if claims survive summary judgment," he said, adding that he would likely limit access to the devices of three or four church officials.
Thomas Wieser, an attorney for the archdiocese, said his client has already turned over the information ordered, including about 5,500 electronic files in a pdf format. But victims' attorney Mike Finnegan said that isn't all the electronic information and isn't in a form that will allow plaintiffs to see who created a document, when it was created or if it was modified.
The Diocese of Winona, which is also a defendant, issued a statement saying it's reviewing more than 100,000 of its emails and other electronically stored documents, but that the total number it will disclose has not been determined.
Van de North wants more information on whether the evidence that the archdiocese has already produced is workable and want to know more about what it costs: Plaintiffs say the archdiocese will have to spend $200 to provide the information, while Van de North said one estimate from the archdiocese ran several hundred thousand dollars.
Attorneys for victims have said they've sought electronic data in previous cases against individual priests, but this request is broader because of the nature of the public nuisance case.
Van de North ruled on other requests made by victims' attorneys. Among them, he said Archbishop John Nienstedt does not need to undergo further questioning under oath, but former vicar general Rev. Kevin McDonough must be questioned another roughly two hours.
"He does appear to be a central figure with respect to more current handling of abuse allegations in our archdiocese," Van de North said of McDonough, adding that he's been "in the middle of so many of these things for so many years."