Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Court won't block release of sex abuse papers

Court won't block release of sex abuse papers


NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- The Supreme Court refused on Monday to block the release of documents generated by lawsuits against priests in Connecticut for alleged sexual abuse.

The justices turned down a request by the Roman Catholic diocese in Bridgeport.

Several newspapers are seeking the release of more than 12,000 pages from 23 lawsuits against six priests.

The records have been under seal since the diocese settled the cases in 2001. Courts in Connecticut have ruled that the papers should be made public.

The decision ends a legal battle that dragged on for years and could shed light on how recently retired New York Cardinal Edward Egan handled the allegations when he was Bridgeport bishop.

It's unclear when the documents will be released. The judge in the case scheduled a Nov. 9 hearing and asked attorneys from both sides to submit written arguments about how the documents should be made public.

Bishop William Lori said he was disappointed with the decision. The diocese had argued unsuccessfully that the documents were subject to religious privileges under the First Amendment.

"Our concern is not about the past but rather about the future, about the impact that these decisions will have on litigants who think they are settling things, and find that they really aren't settled," Lori told The Associated Press. "Also on the First Amendment issues, particularly the freedom of the church, and indeed all churches, to determine who should be a priest or a minister or a rabbi."

Lori said the details of the abuse were made public years ago.

"What I think people care about most is not a repeat of reports about what happened in the past, tragic and reprehensible as that was, but rather people want to know that we're working hard now to protect their children."

A telephone message was left Monday for an attorney for the newspapers.

George Freeman, the vice president and assistant general counsel of The New York Times Co., told the newspaper that it was "gratifying that at long last these documents should see the light of day."

"It's a shame that all the parties involved didn't see fit to release these documents, which are so much in the public interest, without the need of all these years of litigation," he said.

A Waterbury Superior Court judge said in 2006 that the documents were subject to a presumption of public access. The Connecticut Supreme Court upheld the lower court decision.

Barbara Blaine, founder of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, welcomed the decision.

"This decision sends a clear message to those who would endanger kids: eventually, you'll have to face the music and reveal your callousness, recklessness and deceit," Blaine said in a statement. "We hope that this ruling will deter every pedophile's supervisor and co-workers from protecting a predator."

She urged Lori to disclose how much the diocese spent in church donations on the case.

Diocese officials said no contributions from the bishop's annual appeal were used to pay for the case. Legal costs were paid with unrestricted funds and anonymous gifts donated for the case as well as discounted and free legal services, officials said. Lori said the diocese also received a significant amount of free legal work from attorneys, but would not say how much was spent on the case.

J. Michael Reck, an attorney for one of the victims, called the decision "a huge victory for everyone who demands justice, truth, transparency and accountability."

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement supporting Lori's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The bishops said they have taken steps to protect children and help victims of sexual abuse.

"However, when a claim of sexual abuse results in litigation, we must remain vigilant against the risk that court-enforced avenues for the legitimate disclosure of documents are not abused in particular cases, resulting in the excessive entanglement of the state in the affairs of the Church," the bishops' statement said.

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