Paper Seeks Diocese Records

By Guy Kovner
Press Democrat
August 21, 2004

The Press Democrat took legal action Friday seeking public disclosure of secret Catholic Church records on priests accused of sexually abusing minors.

The newspaper is contesting an Oakland judge's proposed order barring public disclosure of personnel files and other secret records on the priests named in 161 lawsuits, including 11 against the Santa Rosa Diocese.

Five of the suits against the Santa Rosa Diocese name defrocked North Coast clerics Don Kimball and Gary Timmons, and deceased priest Patrick Gleeson. But six of the suits identify the accused cleric or clerics only as John Doe.

The newspaper's request asks Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw to reverse his earlier order barring disclosure of the documents. The order, issued at the request of church attorneys, is scheduled for reconsideration at a hearing Sept. 2.

The Press Democrat's request cites state, federal and U.S. Supreme Court rulings in asserting that "an undeniable public interest" overrides the church's interest in secrecy, said Judy Alexander, a Capitola attorney representing the newspaper.

Catherine Barnett, executive editor of The Press Democrat, said she could not recall a case in which the "public interest was this clear."

"We first wrote about accusations that Father Timmons had abused boys more than 10 years ago," Barnett said. "The ensuing decade brought his conviction, more accusations, then financial hardship and heartache for North Coast Catholics.

"By the diocese's own count, priests have abused more than 50 victims here. I can't imagine what argument could be made that would outweigh knowing which priests abused children and what the diocese did to protect those children."

Dan Galvin, attorney for the Santa Rosa Diocese, said he would argue that some church records, on priest ordination and defrocking, for example, should remain secret. "We believe there are some valuable and important privacy rights that ought to be protected," Galvin said.

The newspaper's request said the church must show a "clearly defined, specific and serious injury" would result from releasing any document. Such an argument would be hard to make for a deceased priest or one convicted of a crime, Alexander said.

The diocese, which shielded child-molesting priests from police and the public for 40 years, has acknowledged payments of $8.6 million to victims.

Sixteen priests have been accused of sexual misconduct, according to the diocese, which also found there were 59 underage victims.

Rick Simons, a Hayward attorney representing victims in the 161 cases consolidated before Sabraw, said he supports The Press Democrat's position.

"Nothing in this case should be done in secrecy," he said.

Two weeks ago, the plaintiffs won a ruling from Sabraw that Santa Rosa and seven other dioceses must turn over confidential records to the victims' attorneys. But Sabraw added a verbal order preventing the attorneys from making the records public.

Simons, however, said the personnel files might show what previous Santa Rosa bishops knew of Timmons' crimes and when they knew it.

"That's the heart and soul of the case," he said.

Timmons, ordained in 1976, was convicted in 1996 of molesting children and served four years in state prison. Two of the current lawsuits name Timmons; one names former priest Don Kimball, whose child molesting conviction was erased by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that California could not prosecute decades-old sex abuse cases.

Two of the lawsuits name the Rev. Patrick Gleeson, who died in 1991, and six suits do not identify the alleged molester by name.

The newspaper's request notes that U.S. bishops pledged two years ago to address the sex abuse scandal with "transparency and openness."

"In the past, secrecy has created an atmosphere that has inhibited the healing process and, in some cases, enabled sexually abusive behavior to be repeated," the request said, quoting from the bishops' policy.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.