Judge Seals Sex Abuse Files Papers in Case against St. Michael's Sealed until May
By Aaron Baca
Santa Fe New Mexican (New Mexico)
November 30, 1995
The public doesn't need to know about allegations of sexual abuse by former St. Michael's High School instructors, a Santa Fe District Court judge ruled Wednesday.
At least not until attorneys Merit Bennett and Stephen Tinkler can substantiate in some way the allegations made in the suits they have filed against St. Michael's, Judge Steve Herrera said.
Herrera approved a motion for confidentiality — which is uncommon in civil suits — for three lawsuits filed last summer on behalf of Michael and Paul Ortiz y Pino and Alonzo Malone, all students of St. Michael's in the 1950s and 1960s. Lawyers for St. Michael's asked in September for the confidentiality order.
In their lawsuits, the Ortiz y Pinos and Malone allege they were sexually molested by St. Michael's and College of Santa Fe instructors. The late Brother Abdon, former Brother Louis Brouseau, Brother Tom McConnell and Brother Alex were named as defendants in the suits, among others who were not named.
The suits should be kept secret, St. Michael's lawyers argued, because of embarrassment that might be caused to people who might be named as either victims or defendants in the suits as the cases progress.
"Particularly in New Mexico, and particularly in cases involving religious entities . . . there is the threat of an irreparable stain (on a person's reputation) that won't go away," St. Michael's attorney Bradford Coryell said in arguments before Herrera.
In court papers, St. Michael's attorneys argued that Tinkler and Bennett have failed to support, beyond the word of the Ortiz y Pinos and Malone, the allegations of sexual abuse.
Tinkler and Bennett, who together have handled more than 35 lawsuits that allege sexual misconduct by either the Archdiocese of Santa Fe or other clerical orders, along with members of local news media objected to the motion to seal the cases.
"It was just because of confidentiality that these perpetrators could do what they did and get away with it," Bennett said during his comments.
Tinkler and Bennett have not finished gathering material and testimony for their cases.
Bennett said he did not object to sealing individual portions of the cases to protect the privacy of innocent third parties who might be named during the process. However, the cases in their entirety should not be kept secret, Bennett argued.
"Court documents are public records; they should only be sealed in rare cases and then only for compelling reasons," papers prepared by Bennett state. "St. Michael's . . . should be held to the same standards as any other defendant in this state."
Representatives from both The New Mexican and the Albuquerque Journal who spoke during the hearing also objected to St. Michael's request to seal the cases.
"We oppose . . . a blanket closure order that would ignore the public interest," said Robert Dean, managing editor of The New Mexican . "Restrictions on information will only add to the secrecy and doubts people already have about this case."
Furthermore, The New Mexican does not, as a matter of internal policy, name the victims or alleged victims of sexual abuse unless those people volunteer their names, Dean said.
Herrera, however, seemed to have decided to seal partially the cases before most comments during the hearing were made. "I'm curious to know why you think there shouldn't be a confidentiality order," Herrera told Bennett.
Herrera sealed the cases temporarily and set deadlines for attorneys to complete certain portions of their work. Attorneys must complete the evidence gathering phase of their cases by May. After that, by May 16, attorneys for St. Michael's must file a motion for summary judgment — asking to have the case dismissed based on a lack of evidence — or admit the Ortiz y Pino and Malone cases might have legal merit.
If St. Michael's attorneys fail to file their motion for summary judgment on time, or if the motion is defeated in court, then the cases will become part of the public record, Herrera ordered. Bennett and Coryell said they had no objections to the conditions of the temporary confidentiality order.
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