Church Leaders' Depositions to Be Made Public
Boston Archdiocese Loses Court Appeal in Geoghan Abuse Case
December 25, 2001
A Massachusetts Appeals Court judge has denied an appeal by the Archdiocese of Boston, which sought to overturn a Superior Court order requiring pretrial documents to be made public in 86 sexual molestation lawsuits against former priest John J. Geoghan.
The appellate decision sets the stage for the public disclosure next month of thousands of pages of documents, including the pretrial depositions of church leaders who supervised Geoghan for more than three decades.
Cardinal Bernard Law and five bishops are among the defendants in the lawsuits; attorneys for the alleged victims argue that they were negligent for letting Geoghan stay in several Boston-area parishes despite his lengthy history of abusing children.
Judge Cynthia J. Cohen issued her ruling on Friday [December 21, 2001]. At a hearing two days earlier, Wilson D. Rogers Jr., the archdiocese's attorney, argued that the Catholic Church's First Amendment protections should shield the institution from oversight by secular courts. He also said that release of the documents would make it difficult for Church leaders to receive a fair trial.
The legal action to reverse a year-old confidentiality order in the civil lawsuits was initiated in September by attorneys for The Boston Globe. The newspaper's attorney, Jonathan M. Albano, argued that documents in civil lawsuits are rarely sealed from public view, and that there is a substantial public interest in the actions taken by Geoghan's superiors.
Suffolk Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney, who is presiding over the 86 lawsuits, ruled on Nov. 20 that the confidentiality order could have had an "unintended effect" of preventing public access to the case. Sweeney called for the confidentiality order to be lifted.
In rejecting the Church's appeal, Cohen wrote that she found neither errors of law nor abuse of discretion by Sweeney. Sweeney's ruling, Cohen wrote, "is consistent with the well-established policy favoring the right of public access to the judicial records of civil proceedings."
Cohen also noted that Sweeney's order contains a provision allowing the archdiocese to "seek individualized protection for any discovery request or response which is legitimately entitled to be kept from public scrutiny."
Donna M. Morrissey, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said yesterday that the Church's attorneys have not yet seen the decision and were therefore unable to comment.
Mitchell Garabedian, who represents the plaintiffs in the 86 cases, applauded the ruling yesterday, saying that the Church "fails to understand that there is a well-established policy for the public to have access to records of civil proceedings."
In addition to the civil lawsuits, Geoghan is scheduled to be tried in Middlesex and Suffolk counties on criminal charges of sexually abusing children.
Because of the time it took for the appeal to be filed, heard, and decided, Cohen added 30 days to the Dec. 26 deadline that Sweeney had set for the documents to be filed.