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Appeals Court Hears Arguments Over Sealed Documents

Jan 10, 2003 | AP

Lawyers for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport argued in state Appellate Court Friday that a lower court judge did not have the jurisdiction to order the release of church documents alleging sexual abuse by priests.

But media attorneys said the public has a constitutional right to see the seven boxes of documents stored at Waterbury Superior Court.

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

The diocese settled the claims in March 2001 for an undisclosed sum. The documents were sealed by court order in 1994.

"The rights of the people are violated every day that order is in effect," said Ralph Elliot, a lawyer for The Hartford Courant. The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post also are seeking the release of the documents.

Their request was initially granted last May by Waterbury Superior Court Judge Robert F. McWeeny. The judge said the order sealing the files was intended to protect the defendants' rights to fair trials, so the order expired when the lawsuits were withdrawn.

Elliot said there is no evidence in the record to indicate the order was meant to be perpetual and called McWeeny's ruling "an administrative act of sanity and rationality."

But John Farley, an attorney representing the diocese, said the judge ruled on a case that essentially no longer existed. Citing state law that allows withdrawn cases to be reopened within four months of the withdrawal, Farley said the newspapers got involved too late.

"The trial court lost the authority to modify (the order) after the four-month period expired," Farley said. "In the seven years these cases were pending, the newspapers didn't do anything to vacate these orders. They certainly were aware of the proceedings. They reported on them."

The three-judge panel also heard from an attorney representing five priests who were granted anonymity during the lawsuits. The priests were not accused of any wrongdoing but sought to protect their privacy in personnel records and other documents during proceedings. They had limited status in the case and were not part of the settlements.

"They reasonably believed their involvement was over," said John Conway, the priests' attorney. "They should not be made to relitigate all the relief they had obtained."

The newspapers' attorneys pointed out that McWeeny's original order allowed for certain documents to remain secret. Elliot said the judge offered to meet with the diocese to determine which files could be released. Instead, the diocese appealed.

Farley, the diocese's attorney, said only a limited amount of material could be kept private under McWeeny's order.

"It undermines the voluntary settlement of cases," Farley said. "What good is getting a protective order if it's just going to be cast aside when the case is over?"

A decision by the appeals court is not expected for several months.

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