Reputation V. Right of Access

By Susan D. Etkind
Connecticut Law Tribune
June 22, 1998

Rejecting an argument that potential harm to a priest's reputation overrides the public's right of access, Hartford Superior Court Judge Julia L. Aurigemma on May 28 unsealed the files in two cases of alleged sexual abuse. JAnd John H. Grasso, who represents the priest, says he's not surprised by the ruling.

"I certainly felt the weight of the law was contrary to our hope that the seal be maintained," says Grasso, of Glastonbury's Boatman, Boscarino & Grasso.

"I thought it unlikely that the seal would be authorized." Citing a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court case, Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court, Aurigemma writes: "In Press-Enterprise the First Amendment right of public access was sufficiently strong to outweigh the defendant's due process right to a fair trial, even where the defendant was accused of twelve murders.

Clearly then, public access must outweigh the defendants' right to a good reputation,' particularly where the defendants have presented no evidence that unsealing the file here will have an adverse impact on the defendants' reputation."

The two suits, Reynolds v. Zizka and Reed v. Zizka, allege that the Rev. Peter Zizka sexually abused two of his parishioners at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Newington when they were teen-agers. Plaintiff Michelle Reynolds, who is now 37, allegedly was abused sexually from 1977 until 1983, according to a > March 5 memorandum of decision on a motion to strike. Paula Linda Reed allegedly was abused from 1975 to 1979, according to her complaint. She is now 36. The suits also name the Roman Catholic Diocese of Hartford and the Church of the Holy Spirit as defendants.

Zizka is currently assigned to St. Bartholemew Church in Manchester.

Van A. Starkweather, who represents plaintiff Paula Linda Reed, says his client sought the unsealing.

"Part and parcel of the injury is having to keep it secret," says Starkweather, of Manchester's Law Offices of Van A. Starkweather. "That's part of child sexual abuse, the pain and the shame of having to keep it secret." John A. Collins III, of New London's Suisman, Shapiro, Wool, Brennan & Gray, represents Michelle Reynolds. He says it was important to his client that the defendants "should not be allowed to hide behind a veil of secrecy." John W. Sitarz, of Hartford's Cooney, Scully & Dowling, who represents the diocese and the church, did not return three telephone calls seeking comment.

Robert C. Danaher, of Hartford's Danaher, Tedford, Lagnese & Neal, who is also defending the suits, declines comment.

Although both Reed and Reynolds were filed in 1995, the dispute over the sealing issue did not arise until just a few months ago.

Six-Week Deal

When the cases were filed, according to Aurigemma's ruling, both sides agreed to keep the files sealed for six weeks. When the six weeks elapsed, the parties neither stipulated to the unsealing of the file, nor to an extension of the sealing order.

"The practical effect of it was that the file was sealed indefinitely," says Starkweather. "What we learned is that the clerk is not going to take it upon himself or herself to unseal" the file.

On March 5, however, a motion to strike was filed without being placed under seal. The memorandum of decision was published in the March 30 edition of Connecticut Opinions, and excerpted in an April 4 article in the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. Following the publication of the article, the defendants filed a motion to continue the order sealing the file and a motion for protective order.

But Starkweather says it was just a coincidence that the motions were filed following the newspaper story. "It was prompted by the breakdown of settlement negotiations," he says. Until that time, the attorneys had an oral agreement to maintain the seal, he says.

In ruling to unseal the file, Aurigemma cites Practice Book 11-20, which provides that sealing or limited disclosure is permissible if "the judicial authority concludes that such an order is necessary to preserve an interest which is determined to override the public's interest in attending such proceedings or in viewing such materials."

But Aurigemma writes that " t he defendants have presented no evidence to establish their contention of an overriding' interests other than a copy of the aforementioned newspaper article."

The article quotes a 1995 letter in which 19 lay leaders of St. Bartholomew express their strong support for Zizka.

Protective Order

Also included in the ruling is a protective order issued by Aurigemma at the request of the defendants.

Aurigemma writes: "Unlike the issues discussed above, the request to limit dissemination of discovery materials does not implicate the First Amendment.

Discovery is not a public component of a civil trial.

Taking into account the positions of all the attorneys, Aurigemma continues: " The Protective Order appended hereto will prohibit public disclosure of discovery materials without interfering with the plaintiffs' ability to prepare their cases."

The protective order reads in part: "1. Until further order of the Court, no parties to this action shall make use of any information, documents or transcripts which the parties may obtain through discovery other than such use as is necessary in order for the discovering party to prepare and try the case or any related claim, case or proceeding involving the defendants. Information obtained by any party through discovery may not be published by any of the parties or made available to any news media for publication or dissemination." "I think she took a reasonable middle ground," says Starkweather. The judge, he says, "did not handcuff the plaintiffs' attorneys."

On June 11, however, Sitarz, on behalf of the diocese and the Church of the Holy Spirit, filed a motion for clarification of paragraph 1, the paragraph excerpted above. On June 16, Starkweather filed an objection to the motion, calling it unnecessary and charging that the defendants "have essentially asked the court to reconsider and severely restrict the scope of the protective orderI."

Contact: susan.etkind


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