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Spotlight Report

Conn. courts helped hide abuse, judge says

By Walter V. Robinson, Globe Staff, 6/14/2002

A Connecticut Superior Court judge accused his state's judiciary this week of longstanding complicity in the Diocese of Bridgeport's efforts to keep hidden from the public the extent of clergy sexual abuse, including a church ''cover-up,'' which the judge said is ''at the heart of the scandal.''

In a written opinion released late Wednesday, Judge Robert F. McWeeny criticized what he called ''a judicial model of cooperation with the Diocese in endlessly delaying litigation, sealing files and coercing victims into non-disclosure settlements.''

In extraordinary language aimed at the Connecticut Appellate Court, which has delayed his order that seven boxes of secret documents be made public, McWeeny declared that it is ''indefensible morally as well as legally'' to keep the documents under court seal. Even the delay, he said, ''precludes any timely vindication of any public right to access this compelling information.''

In this week's opinion, and in a May 8 order that the records of 23 settled lawsuits become public, McWeeny hinted that the documents will be damaging to the church. If his order is upheld, then the records may cause further problems for Cardinal Edward F. Egan, who headed the Bridgeport Diocese for 12 years until he was elevated to archbishop of New York in 2000.

In a little-noticed footnote to his May 8 decision, McWeeny referred to one case not yet publicly reported. He wrote that ''one of the defendant priests, following at least two complaints of sexual abuse of minors, and a diagnosis of `chronic schizophrenia-paranoid type,' was promoted to the position of pastor. While so engaged, he was accused of further incidents of child sexual abuse.''

In Wednesday's opinion, citing this week's meeting of Catholic bishops in Dallas as just one example, the judge said the documents ''are related to an issue of extraordinary public interest.''

The Bridgeport Diocese, he continued, ''though unsuccessful in nearly every legal claim it has asserted, has nonetheless for years shielded these materials from public review. Connecticut courts have facilitated this process in the following manner: sealing the files over the objections of the victims; delaying the trials; thus encouraging the plaintiffs to enter into settlement agreements containing confidentiality and non-disclosure provisions; and preventing any timely adjudication of the merits'' of legal efforts to make the records public.

Judge McWeeny's June 12 opinion can be read in its entirety at www.boston.com/globe.

McWeeny had ordered the release of the documents after receiving motions from the New York Times, Boston Globe, Hartford Courant, and Washington Post. Those motions were filed after the Courant, which obtained some documents, reported in February that, while a bishop, Egan had covered up allegations of abuse against priests and allowed known child molesters to continue in positions that placed children at risk.

Stephen Gillers, a specialist in legal ethics at New York University School of Law, said McWeeny's opinion is unusual for a ''trial-level judge who is not supposed to challenge the system, but is supposed to follow the rules that are laid down.

''Judge McWeeny obviously feels that the nature of the case requires him to put himself on the line, to throw down a gauntlet and say to his fellow judges, `We've misbehaved and we ought to clean this up,''' Gillers said. He said McWeeney's decision ''will make it measurably more difficult'' for the intermediate Appellate Court to reverse McWeeny's decision.

Gillers has been a critic of judges who agree to seal records in civil settlements when such secrecy prevents public awareness of possible future harm. ''If a case involves a dangerous product or a design defect that could put other people at risk, then it is unacceptable for a judge to allow a settlement to be hidden from other potential victims,'' Gillers said. ''The same principle applies to hiding information about the extent of pedophilia by priests.''

Joseph McAleer, spokesman for the Diocese of Bridgeport, said he disagrees strongly with McWeeny's characterization of the judiciary and said that the church was asserting its rights.

Citing the need for ''reconciliation, healing and closure,'' McAleer said in a statement to the Globe: ''We believe it serves no healing purpose to revisit this painful subject for the victims and their families, and it will disrupt the healing process.'' He said the settlements in 2001 did not prohibit victims from speaking out.

In Massachusetts last November, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney, acting on a motion made by the Globe, set aside a confidentiality order that protected from public disclosure documents produced by the Archdiocese of Boston in pending civil suits involving allegations against former priest John J. Geoghan. In January, more than 10,000 pages were made public.

In February, another Massachusetts judge ordered sealed records in five settled lawsuits against priests made public. In one of the cases, the archdiocesan attorney had persuaded a judge to impound the records because public knowledge about the abuse ''would be seriously damaging'' to the church.

McWeeny's opinion this week came in response to a request from the Appellate Court to explain the legal underpinning to his decision that the records, once sealed, could be opened.

McWeeny, who has been a trial court judge since 1989, wrote in his response that the Appellate Court's decision to delay release of the documents was made on the basis of a ''frivolous'' appeal by the diocese.

''It is difficult to imagine,'' McWeeny wrote, ''that consideration of the merits would result in elevating institutional interests in covering up a scandal over the legitimate public interest in the issue of the church's response to sexual abuse of minors by priests.''

The files in the 23 settled cases, the judge said, ''are about more than the depredations of priest-pedophiles. They fundamentally confront an institutional response that elevates institutional and career interests over the victims, the faith, and the faith community. The cover-up is the heart of the scandal. Today, can it be seriously maintained that secrecy at all costs was a wise or effective policy?''

He added: ''It certainly isn't being publicly advocated before the United States Bishops conference.'' The Appellate Court has yet to set a date to consider McWeeny's ruling.

Cindy Robinson, a Bridgeport lawyer who represented the victims in the settled cases, said her clients never wanted the records sealed. She noted that the documents were ordered sealed only to ensure an unbiased pool of jurors if the lawsuits went to trial. But the cases were settled before trial.

Walter Robinson can be reached at wrobinson@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/14/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Boston Globe Electronic Publishing LLC.


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