Observer, other media seek to unseal records from lawsuits against Catholic diocese

By Bruce Henderson
Charlotte Observer
July 22, 2019

[with video]

News outlets including The Charlotte Observer have filed joint court motions that seek to unseal documents in two lawsuits that claimed sexual abuse by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte.

Both lawsuits were resolved in favor of the 46-county diocese. The media group argues that documents the diocese had asked to be sealed, as part of motions for summary judgment in the cases, are of significant public interest.

Television stations WBTV, WCNC and WSOC are also part of the group.

The lawsuits were filed by plaintiffs under assumed names: John Doe 1K and John Doe 2K in one case, and John Doe and the estate of Vincent Cook in the other. The media group, in court filings Friday, does not seek to reveal their identities.

But the news outlets say the diocese, in asking judges to seal the court papers with the plaintiffs’ approval, didn’t prove that the narrow range of circumstances in which such documents can be kept out of public view existed.

“For decades, the United States Supreme Court (and) our North Carolina appellate courts have held that in except for the most extraordinary circumstances court records should be public,” Jonathan Buchan, the lawyer representing the media group, told WBTV. “That’s why the public will have confidence in how our courts operate. Our courts have held that time and again.”

In the case of John Doe 1K and John Doe 2K, the media group’s filings say, there is no indication the parties offered evidence or arguments to support their request that the documents be sealed, the group says. John 2K does not object to unsealing the records so long as his identity and medical information is not disclosed, the court filings say.

In the second lawsuit, the group says the plaintiffs do not object to unsealing the documents as long as their identities or medical condition are not revealed. Those plaintiffs also don’t object to unsealing the records if their names and medical information isn’t revealed, the filings say.

In a statement to WBTV that was shared with the media group, the diocese said it filed documents under seal in the cases only to protect the identities of the plaintiffs.

The diocese reaffirmed its commitment to transparency, accountability and compassion for victims of sexual abuse and said it acts swiftly to report allegations against clergy. It cited the case of a retired priest, Joseph Kelleher, who the diocese suspended from ministry and notified authorities after an abuse allegation in 2010.

“In the same spirit, the diocese supports the media’s request to unseal documents in the civil suits – if that is the desire of the plaintiffs involved,” the statement said. “In fact, the only information that the diocese filed under seal in these cases is information that would reveal the plaintiffs’ identities, a step the diocese took to honor the plaintiffs’ request at the time. Respecting the wishes of plaintiffs in this case and promoting healing for all victims of abuse remain our highest priorities.”

While furor over priests who molest children has roiled the nation’s Catholics, the Charlotte diocese has not released the names of other priests who have been credibly accused of molestation.

Two former Benedictine monks who once worked at Belmont Abbey College and St. Michael Catholic Church in Gastonia appeared on a list of priests accused of child sexual abuse that was released by the Diocese of Richmond, Va., The Observer reported in February.

In March, the Charlotte diocese’s second in command stepped down after an allegation of sexual misconduct involving a former adult student of Belmont Abbey in the 1980s. Monsignor Mauricio West, who was accused, denied the allegation but was to take a leave of absence from ministerial duties after counseling and assessment.

In May, the diocese said it will publish a list of clergy members who have been credibly accused of child sex abuse by the end of this year. The announcement followed new procedures set out by Pope Francis that require priests and nuns to report sexual abuse by clergy.

“Through my discussions with abuse survivors, I have come to believe that a full airing of abuse from the past is crucial in the healing process for victims and for the entire Church,” Bishop Peter Jugis said in a statement at the time.

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