The judge presiding over hundreds of lawsuits charging sexual abuse by clergy has taken the first step toward forcing the Archdiocese of Boston to release to alleged victims church files containing psychiatric assessments of 87 priests.
In a one-paragraph decision made public yesterday, Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney ruled that the archdiocese had failed to prove ”in any way” the existence of a medical or psychiatric privilege that would allow church officials to keep the documents secret.
Sweeney ordered the archdiocese to notify all the priests in question that their records are about to be turned over and that they have 15 days to file an objection if they do not want their records revealed.
So far, plaintiffs have received psychiatric records for a handful of priests but Sweeney’s order potentially paves the way for the release of thousands of pages of new documents to lawyers for alleged abuse victims.
Lawyers for the archdiocese had withheld more than 13,000 individual pieces of information from attorneys for the plaintiffs under the claim of doctor-patient or therapist-patient privilege.
The information in question comes from mental health specialists who examined allegedly abusive priests at church retreats, mental health institutions, and other facilities.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs had urged Sweeney to find that it was not privileged information, arguing that the psychiatric and medical examinations of the 87 priests were obtained by the archdiocese not for the purpose of treating the alleged abuser, but to determine whether the men were fit to continue serving as priests. The records could provide information on whether church officials reassigned priests to active ministry over the objections of psychiatric specialists.
The priests in question include:
The Rev. Paul Shanley, who was kept in active ministry despite his public advocacy of sex between men and boys. He is facing criminal charges in Middlesex County for allegedly raping four boys at a now-defunct parish in Newton.
The Rev. Ronald A. Paquin of Haverhill, who pleaded guilty to three counts of child rape and was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in state prison earlier this year.
The Rev. Bernard J. Lane, who faces claims that he molested at least 17 boys, including when he was director of Alpha-Omega House, a now-closed Littleton home for troubled adolescents.
A spokesman for the archdiocese did not return a call yesterday seeking comment.
The release of Sweeney’s order came the day after a 90-day voluntary moratorium on pretrial discovery in nearly 400 of the 500 lawsuits ended without a settlement.
As the moratorium was expiring, lawyers for the plaintiffs said they saw no alternative to years of difficult litigation against the church. ”Everything is in high gear now,” one attorney said.