Earlier this year the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that thousands of pages of secret court documents on sex abuse by priests should be released to the public. Now the Diocese of Bridgeport wants to appeal its case to the US Supreme Court. It’s the latest chapter in a long, highly-charged battle over public access to the materials.
It was the early 1990s. A Bridgeport law firm took on the case of a man who’d been sexually abused as a child. His abuser was a priest. Publicity about the case led others to come forward and tell their stories of childhood sex abuse by clergy. In 1993, 23 victims of clergy sex abuse filed suit against the Diocese of Bridgeport, one of the first cases of its kind in the country. Cindy Robinson is an attorney with the law firm Tremont and Sheldon, which brought the suit. "This is a story of the horrific betrayal of children and their families by an individual in the ultimate position of trust. And in order to understand the enormity of the deception, one has to appreciate the fact that for the victims of the clergy abuse, to them their abuser was the closest thing to God".
As the cases moved forward, more than 1200 pages of briefs, affidavits and testimony were filed with the court under seal to protect the Church’s right to a fair trial. The documents include details on how Church leaders often moved pedophile priests from one unaware parish to another. There are also depositions by Bishop Edward Egan, who oversaw the Bridgeport Diocese from 1988-2000. Egan later became Archbishop of New York. He retired earlier this year.
The Bridgeport cases were settled out of court in 2001. But despite the fact that no trial took place, the documents remained sealed. Four newspapers – The New York Times, Hartford Courant, Boston Globe and Washington Post sued to gain access to the records.
"For the most part, court proceedings and court records are open to the public."Attorney Jon Albino represents 3 of the four newspapers. "The right that the newspapers are asserting is not some type of special privilege granted to the press. The right of access to court records is the public’s right."
But critics of the newspapers say the story is old news. They say the allegations of sex abuse date back to the 1960s and 70s. Victims and their lawyers had access to the secret records during litigation in the 1990s. The Bridgeport Diocese officials and their attorney declined WNPR’s requests for interviews for this report. But according to the Diocese’s website “granting access to such documents would intrude upon the private affairs of citizens, with the potential to inflict great harm and injustice”. Furthermore, Church officials claim that confidential spiritual communication - often highly personal - is protected by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
"But there is no privilege with respect to documents involving sex abuse of children just because they involve the bishop talking to a priest." Marci Hamilton is a church/state scholar at the Cardozo School of Law in New York City. She says the church has made similar arguments in sex abuse lawsuits across the country. "They have no more First Amendment right to keep their papers secret involving child abuse than any other employer. As one court held in California, the church does not believe in sex abuse and so the notion that they’ve got some kind of religious liberty interest regarding documents pertaining to the abuse is ridiculous."
Church officials have also claimed that a Waterbury Superior Court judge who ruled against them had a conflict-of-interest in the case. But in May, CT’s Supreme Court ruled against the church and said the documents must be released. Now, the Bridgeport Diocese wants the US Supreme Court to hear its case. Marci Hamilton says that’s unlikely, because if the Bridgeport Diocese had wanted the records permanently sealed, that should have been made clear when the papers were first released to the court in the 1990s. Now she says, its too late.
Another argument made by the Church for keeping the records secret has been to protect the victims. Jim Hackett is one of 43 clergy sex abuse survivors who settled a 22 million dollar case with the Archdiocese of Hartford. " I know the man who abused me was accused of abusing other people before he came to my parish. And I know of other people that he abused after my parents had gone to the pastor and let them know what he was up to. But they covered up for him."
Hackett says despite a special charter by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002 calling for accountability and transparency in clergy sex abuse cases, he believes the church continues to cover up for clergy misconduct. Hackett recalls as a child, Catholic priests taught him to confess his sins. "But I find it interesting that if a priest molests a child and tells another priest about it, or if it’s found out somehow, the bishops and the pastors and the cardinals, they’ll cover it up. They’ll say..don’t do it again, we’re moving you to another parish and give him a whole new bunch of kids to pick from essentially..to keep going. "
Clergy sexual misconduct litigation is expensive and has cost the Bridgeport Diocese millions. Church officials are expected to enter a formal request to the US Supreme Court to hear the Bridgeport case by the end of August. The Court decides whether to take the case in October.