Church, County at Odds in Priest Scandal

By James F. McCarty
Plain Dealer [Cleveland OH]
February 9, 2003

Lawyers representing the Cleveland Catholic Diocese have warned Cuyahoga County's prosecutor not to release any information he collected about 145 priests accused of sexual abuse.

When Prosecutor William Mason concluded his grand jury investigation in December, he said the only reason many priests weren't indicted was that the time limit for charging them had expired.

Two months later, only prosecutors and grand jurors know how many priests escaped criminal charges because their cases were too old, who they are and whether they are still active in the ministry. And only they know how many of the 145 were absolved of guilt.

And because of Ohio law, no one else may ever know: not the diocese, not the news media and not the region's 800,000 Catholics - unless a judge lets the prosecutors release information normally kept secret. Mason at first said he would open a roomful of investigative files to the public. But he backed off after a worrisome shot was fired across his bow by Jones Day, a powerful Cleveland law firm hired by Bishop Anthony Pilla.

On Dec. 14 - 10 days after the grand jury issued criminal indictments against one priest and six diocesan employees, and nine days after The Plain Dealer and other media filed public-rec- ords requests - Jones Day lawyer Stephen Sozio wrote to Mason. He warned the prosecutor not to release the records and vowed to sue if Mason did so.

The files are secret, Sozio asserted, and contain "highly confidential, personal and intimate information." He cited an Ohio law that shields grand jury investigative materials from public view.

If the media or anyone else sought access to the files, Sozio said, the diocese would intervene to enforce the secrecy provisions. Mason got similar warnings from lawyers for Catholic Charities and a former priest.

Diocesan spokesman Robert Tayek said the church took this position because the documents "contain personal, intimate information that was given in confidence."

"Disclosure could only bring more harm, humiliation and embarrassment for all parties involved," he said, adding that "to the best of our knowledge," no priests against whom abuse allegations have been made are still in active ministry.

The diocese itself has expressed no interest in reviewing the files, even though Mason said the investigation involved more than 1,000 accusations against 496 people with church connections.

That number dwarfs the number Pilla has identified as possible abusers. That group numbers 28 priests, of whom 15 have been suspended; the rest are no longer active.

When the investigation ended, Pilla wrote to the 15 men, saying he expected to obtain the "entire" collection of documents from Mason and urging them to ask for a review of their own files.

But the diocese never got the files, and never asked for them. Tayek declined to say why such a request was not made or to discuss the letter itself.

"We consider the letter to be confidential correspondence between the bishop and his priests, and we're not going to comment on it," Tayek said.

Mason's spokeswoman, Kim Kowalski, offered one possible reason diocese lawyers have not pursued the files.

"If we give them to the diocese, then we have to give them to the media, too," she said.

Only one priest's lawyer has followed Pilla's original advice to seek review of Mason's findings. James Hinton of Akron asked to review files on the Rev. Raymond Bartnikowski of St. Victor parish in Richfield.

Mason is pondering his next move. Kowalski said he is considering asking Common Pleas Judge Brian Corrigan, who oversaw the grand jury, to rule on the proper disposition of the documents.

Tayek, meanwhile, said he sees no contradiction between the diocese's effort to keep the files secret and the policy of openness proclaimed by the Conference of U.S. Bishops at their groundbreaking meeting last June in Dallas.

The sanctity of the grand jury system should not be compromised, he said.


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