Conn. High Court Asked to Rule on Catholic Church Abuse Documents

December 9, 2005

In a case that could have implications for New York Cardinal Edward Egan, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport asked the Connecticut Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling that newspapers can ask for documents related to its settlement of priest abuse cases.

The 3-2 ruling by the high court last month left it up to a lower court to decide whether to release the records. The diocese wants a full panel of seven justices or judges to consider the case.

Church officials argue the high court’s decision wrongly concluded that a lower court judge agreed to allow the newspapers to intervene in the case. They say the trial court judge abused his discretion and want a new hearing on whether the papers have a right to intervene.

“The decision is, therefore, inconsistent with fundamental fairness and violates the defendants’ right to due process,” attorney John Farley wrote for the diocese.

Church officials also said the high court’s ruling leaves intact a decision by a trial court judge who “demonstrated palpable hostility” to the church and courts by alleging they were part of an effort to cover up the abuse scandal.

Egan handled the lawsuits when he was Bridgeport bishop. In Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law resigned after church records were released detailing his role in handling sexual abuse claims.

Egan, who served as Bridgeport bishop from 1988 to 2000, has been criticized for failing to notify authorities of the abuse allegations and allowing the priests to continue working despite the allegations. Egan has defended his handling of the cases.

Attorneys for The Hartford Courant, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Boston Globe argued that the public has a constitutional right under the First Amendment to see the records. They say sealing orders expired when the diocese settled the lawsuits in 2001.

The newspapers welcomed last month’s ruling and called for a speedy trial court hearing to release the records.

The thousands of documents stem from 23 lawsuits against six priests spanning the late 1960s to the early 1990s. Most of the alleged victims were altar boys or belonged to church youth organizations.

A Superior Court judge in 2002 ordered the documents released.

But the state Appellate Court overturned that ruling last year, concluding the judge had no authority to order the release of the documents. The high court disagreed, saying the judge had the authority to reopen the case docket, and ruled another judge should hear the case.

Attorneys for the diocese had argued that vacating the sealing orders would jeopardize and reveal sensitive and confidential information. The diocese said the ruling also could affect other settled cases in which parties count on the confidentiality of records.

The diocese has published names of the offending priests and removed them from the ministry, church officials said.

The diocese has spent more than $21 million settling lawsuits alleging abuse by priests.

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