Court to Decide on Sealed Priest Files
By Eric Rich
Hartford Courant [Hartford CT]
January 11, 2003
An attorney for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport argued Friday that the state Appellate Court should deny the public access to thousands of documents relating to 23 settled lawsuits against priests accused of sexually abusing minors.
The attorney, John B. Farley, argued that a lower court judge lacked jurisdiction last May when he agreed to entertain requests from various newspapers - including The Courant and The New York Times - that the confidential files be disclosed. Farley maintained that the judge erred again when he subsequently granted the newspapers' request.
In the May ruling, Superior Court Judge Robert F. McWeeny said that "in a matter of such widespread public interest, the judicial system should not be party to a coverup by denying access to such information."
At the time, McWeeny heard the newspapers' requests as a new case, set up to handle the matter "administratively" - a move the diocese argues was intended to sidestep a four-month statutory limit on reopening cases. McWeeny found that orders sealing the records from public view were intended to protect the defendants' right to a fair trial and that they therefore expired when the cases were settled.
Farley argued Friday that, without reopening the underlying case, McWeeny effectively vacated orders sealing the records when he ordered the documents released. Farley spoke of the "plain unfairness" to the defendants who believed the cases were settled, and of the newspapers' "abject failure" to intervene in a timely fashion.
"The trial court lost the authority to modify [the order] after the four-month period expired," Farley said. "In the seven years these cases were pending, the newspapers didn't do anything to vacate these orders."
He asked that the Appellate Court reverse McWeeny's decision and order that "the lower court not tamper with the outcome of the 23 closed cases."
The Courant's attorney, Ralph G. Elliot, argued that the public has a constitutional right to inspect court files and that the chief order sealing the files - "until further order of the court" - was not intended to remain in force after tainting a potential jury pool ceased to be a concern.
"The rights of the public and the press are violated every day [the seal] remains in effect," Elliot told the court.
In response to Farley, Elliot argued that McWeeny neither reopened the underlying matters, nor vacated an order in those matters. "What Judge McWeeny did was allow The Courant and The Times to assert their constitutional rights," he said.
The attorney for The Times, Jonathan M. Albano of Boston, said that even if McWeeny, by creating a new case, handled the newspapers' request in an arguably unusual fashion, the judge was faced with a legal matter without precedent in Connecticut. Even if the approach was imperfect, he suggested, the judge ensured that the rights of all parties involved were protected in the new case.
The three appellate judges who heard the argument Friday - Paul M. Foti, Joseph P. Flynn and Thomas G. West - asked few questions.
Although the contents of the court's file remain hidden, the legal maneuver by the newspapers echoes the media's successful effort to unseal priest abuse cases in Boston. There, the disclosure of court files triggered a public scandal that led, last month, to the resignation of Archbishop Bernard Law.
The Bridgeport documents - church memoranda, depositions and other records - were entered into the court's file over seven years of litigation conducted largely outside of public view. The lawsuits charge sexual abuse by six priests, spanning three decades beginning in the 1960s.
The diocese settled the cases for $12 million in March 2001, and the lawsuits were withdrawn. The files gathered dust in the clerk's office at Waterbury Superior Court until, a day before they were slated to be destroyed, The Times filed an emergency petition last March asking that they be opened to the public.
The newspaper's request apparently was triggered by a story that appeared in The Courant earlier that month, Farley said Friday. The Courant had obtained copies of several thousand pages of the sealed documents, a portion of a total said to fill seven boxes.
The documents showed that, as bishop of the Bridgeport diocese, New York Cardinal Edward M. Egan allowed abusive priests to remain in ministry, failed to report abuse claims to the authorities, and tended to dismiss accusers even when patterns of abuse allegations were evident.
None of the alleged victims has opposed release of the documents. The court is not expected to issue a decision for several months.
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