On Appeal, Diocese Can Keep Abuse-Suit Documents Sealed

By Paul von Zeilbauer
New York Times
June 26, 2003

Hartford, June 25— Connecticut's Appellate Court ruled today that a state judge erred last year in deciding that sealed court files containing specific allegations of sexual abuse by several priests in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport should be opened to the public.

Though today's decision was technical and narrow -- it concerned only whether the lower-court judge had acted properly in ruling that the files were eligible to be unsealed, not the propriety of opening church-related court records to the public -- it represented a victory for the diocese.

For the time being, the decision gives the diocese the power to keep secret the names of the accused priests, as well as the allegations against them by parishioners.

Although Judge Robert F. McWeeny of State Superior Court ordered that the files be opened, the Appellate Court took the unusual step of keeping them sealed while church lawyers appealed the decision.

The diocese, in a statement posted on its Web site today, called the Appellate Court ruling ''another step along the difficult path to justice and reconciliation.''

The diocese, it said, ''will continue to take decisive measures in response to allegations and to comply with all civil and church laws,'' the statement said. ''The Diocese of Bridgeport is dedicated to protecting the innocent and consoling all those who have suffered.''

The sealed files include transcripts of depositions by Cardinal Edward M. Egan, the archbishop of New York, which raised questions about his handling of abuse allegations when, as bishop, he led the Bridgeport diocese from 1988 to 2000.

The New York Times petitioned Judge McWeeny last year, along with The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The Hartford Courant, to open the 23 court files. The Times's lawyer, George Freeman, said today that it would ''strongly consider'' appealing today's ruling.

''We thought that the Judge McWeeny decision was very powerful in that it fully understood the importance to the public in making these old sex-abuse files and settlements public,'' Mr. Freeman said. ''We think it's very unfortunate that the Appellate Court seemed to rely on some procedural technicalities to trump the public's ability to access these files.''

The three-judge appeals court panel ruled that Judge McWeeny erred in granting the newspapers' motions to open the court files because state law allows such motions only within four months after a case is resolved. The Times, which was first to file an appeal, did so in March 2002, more than a year after plaintiffs in the 23 lawsuits against the diocese had withdrawn their complaints and settled out of court.

In June 2002, when Judge McWeeny granted emergency motions by all the newspapers involved, he argued that despite the four-month rule, the court still maintained jurisdiction over the files, if not the parties, involved in the case. He also criticized the church's efforts to keep the substance of the resolved court cases secret.

''The judicial system should not be a party to a cover-up by denying access'' to a matter of such widespread public interest, Judge McWeeny wrote at the time. He took issue, too, with the Appellate Court's decision to keep the court files sealed while it reviewed his decision to open them. As the appeals panel noted in its decision today, Judge McWeeny warned against the ''facilitation of a cover-up by the courts.''

The Appellate Court today described Judge McWeeny's warnings as ''misguided,'' an unusual intra-judicial rebuke.

Ralph G. Elliot, a lawyer for The Courant, said he was troubled by the precedent that he said the new ruling established today.

''What the court decided is that, in effect, if you don't know about the problem within four months of the end of the case and don't seek to open up the case again within four months of the end of the case, you're in trouble,'' he said. ''It has terrible ramifications.''


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