Parties in Abuse Lawsuits Warned
Albany -- Judge Says Statements Related to Clergy Sexual-Abuse Cases Could Prejudice Potential Jurors in Region
By Andrew Tilghman
Albany Times Union [Albany NY]
February 12, 2003
A state judge has issued a rare warning against public statements and publicity about alleged sexual abuse by priests, saying "rumor, gossip and innuendo in this small community" threatens to influence potential jurors in lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany.
Supreme Court Justice Joseph Teresi's warning could force Bishop Howard Hubbard to scale back his pledge to notify the public about sexual abuse by priests and place him in conflict with policies adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last June in Dallas.
The order was part of a "very strong, strict cautionary" attorneys involved in three lawsuits and all future or potential cases against the Albany Diocese and priests. It comes after a cascade of public disclosures and aired allegations in recent weeks about sexual misconduct by Albany clerics in the 1970s and allegations that church officials mishandled victims who came forward last year.
"If this conduct continues, we are going to reach a point of no return where these cases are going to have a very difficult time obtaining an impartial jury in the Capital District area," Teresi said.
The ruling about public statements applies to attorney John Aretakis and some two dozen alleged victims he represents, as well as to attorney Michael Costello and the Albany Diocese, which he represents, Teresi said.
Teresi told the attorneys that he expects them to adhere "not only in spirit but to the letter" of disciplinary codes governing trial publicity. The codes bar statements that "will have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an adjudicative proceeding."
Recently, Hubbard has disclosed results of internal church investigations and announced the removal of two priests in the past two weeks because of "credible" allegations of sexual abuse.
"The characterization by a party or a witness of a claim being credible or incredible, which results in the change of employment status or ministry status of an individual ... may also come within the disciplinary rule," the judge said.
The diocese did not respond Tuesday to a phone call and a written inquiry about how the judge's order could change its policy of publicly disclosing the removal of a priest believed to have sexually abused a child.
Teresi told Aretakis it was inexcusable to arrange media interviews for his clients "for what counsel may believe is a cathartic result, or for that client's better health."
While Teresi said he was going to "stop short" of banning statements outside the courtroom, he indicated he was willing to do so if he learned that "any counsel has gone beyond this cautionary."
"This court clearly has the responsibility to ensure a fair public trial, and it has the authority to do so and must take precautionary safeguards in proscribed extrajudicial statements of any lawyers, parties and witnesses," the judge stated.
Teresi's formal order was not issued in response to any motion. Rather, he said his efforts to broker an informal "gentlemen's agreement" between the lawyers for plaintiffs and the church collapsed because Aretakis said he believed that speaking publicly about sexual abuse by priests was in his clients' best interest.
Teresi made the order Monday, and an official copy was released Tuesday.
Legal experts said the order, though rare, was reasonable.
"I don't think he is overreaching at this point," said Vincent Bonventre, an Albany Law School professor.
However, Bonventre said, before Teresi could impose formal restrictions, discipline lawyers or hold parties in contempt, "he would have to show good faith conclusion that there is a clear and imminent danger to a fair trial."
William Burleigh, a retired journalist who sits on the 12-member National Review Board set up to monitor American bishops' compliance with the new rules, said Tuesday he was unaware of any previous situation where civil authorities made requirements counter to the Dallas charter.
The nation's dioceses are expected to "develop a communications policy that reflects a commitment to transparency and openness," according to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young people, which the bishops adopted.
Aretakis's three lawsuits filed against the Albany Diocese during the past three months were all recently assigned to Teresi. The lawsuits target Hubbard and other church officials for their response to victims who came forward last year rather than the underlying allegations of abuse, which is beyond the state's three-year statute of limitations.
Also Monday, Teresi denied a motion from Aretakis that the judge remove himself from the three current cases because he is a devout Catholic who might have difficulty being impartial.
"I don't consider myself a religious person," Teresi said before denying the motion. He added that his wife is a teacher at a Catholic school.
"I have never discussed these cases, the allegations, either locally or nationally, with any clergy, in particular with Bishop Hubbard."
"These cases will be decided on nothing else but the law and the facts," Teresi said.
This past weekend, Hubbard removed the Rev. Joseph R. Romano, who worked in Albany parishes and schools, based on two complaints received last summer and earlier this year, church officials said.
On Monday, a church spokesman acknowledged that the diocese had received a complaint about Romano in 1998. The complaint was forwarded to authorities, who determined it to be "unfounded."
The spokesman would not say whether the diocesan sexual misconduct panel had reviewed that complaint following the zero-tolerance policy U.S. bishops adopted last year.
Hubbard has faced criticism about quietly giving one victim more than $225,000 during the height of the national scandal last summer. Sister Maureen Joyce, who heads Albany's Catholic Charities, also was criticized for taking part in the payments. The payments were disclosed for the first time last month when the victim spoke to the press.
The diocese is fighting one of the lawsuits filed by Aretakis that seeks damages under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO law, traditionally used to prosecute organized crime.
On Tuesday night, the Rev. Kenneth Doyle met with his parishioners at St. Catherine of Siena, which was Romano's former parish. In an apparent response to Teresi's admonition, before the meeting began, Doyle asked any members of the news media to leave the church.
A reporter, who left the church but was waiting in the parking lot, was asked to leave the property. writer Bruce A. Scruton contributed to this report.
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