Wednesday, July 17, 2002

Paper asks judge to release files on abuse complaints

By DAVID HENCH, Portland Press Herald Writer

Copyright 2002 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram on Tuesday asked a Superior Court judge to order the release of information about 18 deceased Maine priests accused of molesting children or of other sexual misconduct.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland provided that information to investigators as part of an inquiry into whether criminal charges should be brought against current or former priests. Prosecutors refused to release the information when the newspapers filed requests in June and July under the state's Freedom of Access law.

"As a newspaper, we have an obligation to our readers to pursue all avenues of public information in the coverage of a news event," said the newspapers' executive editor and vice president, Jeannine A. Guttman. "In this case, the crisis involving the Catholic Church has become a major public-interest issue, prompting concern and debate here in Maine and across the nation.

"If we prevail in this case, and we are given access to the files, we will examine the contents and use our journalistic judgment to determine what material, if any, we will publish in our news pages. We will make that determination in a thoughtful, deliberative fashion," Guttman said.

Attorney General Steven Rowe said the information is exempt from the state's public records law because it could interfere with law enforcement proceedings, constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy or interfere with the state's efforts to impanel an impartial jury once the investigation is complete.

"We think this is a case that really ought to be decided by a judge, not us unilaterally releasing that type of information," said Deputy Attorney General William Stokes, head of the department's criminal division.

The newspapers appealed that decision Tuesday in Kennebec County Superior Court, where the attorney general's office is located. The newspapers argued that there's "no law enforcement proceeding with which to interfere" or jury to impanel, and a much diminished privacy concern, because the priests are dead.

Those concerns are far outweighed by the public value of "disclosure of the scope and extent of alleged sexual abuse by the clergy," the media company said in its suit.

"We are only seeking complaint files against deceased priests because it is difficult to imagine that anyone intends to prosecute them," the newspapers' lawyer, Jonathan Piper said Tuesday in a prepared statement. "My client has undertaken this because it believes that it involves a matter of high public importance and that there has been enough secrecy surrounding sexual abuse by priests."

Sue Bernard, spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Portland, said the church opposes public disclosure of the allegations against deceased priests.

"We're talking about the possibility of really hurting someone's reputation and maybe surviving families' reputation without any chance of having them defend themselves," Bernard said.

Asked if the information wouldn't shed light on how Maine church officials handled such allegations in the past, Bernard said: "The names of these people who are on the list are those who have allegations against them. They haven't necessarily ever been proven. Whether that sheds any light on how the church used to do business, I guess I'm not sure that it does."

Not all church dioceses have taken that approach. New Hampshire church officials responded quickly after the crisis unfolded by releasing the names of all priests, living and dead, accused of molesting children.

Nationally, the Catholic Church has been tarnished by a far-reaching scandal involving sexual abuse of minors by priests and the decision by some church officials to reassign priests to new parishes after they had been accused.

Pope John Paul II summoned 12 American cardinals to the Vatican in April for a conference on sexual abuse of minors by priests and in June, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a Charter for the Protection of Young People that criticized the secrecy that had surrounded the issue.

The magnitude of the problem became public at the end of last year after the Boston Globe persuaded a judge to lift a confidentiality agreement surrounding a civil suit by abuse victims against convicted pedophile and defrocked priest John J. Geoghan. The information gathered for the suit showed that Massachusetts church leaders were aware priests had been accused of abuse but instead of reporting them to authorities or removing them from the priesthood, they assigned them new duties in other parishes.

The discovery led to similar inquiries across the country and ultimately to the revelation that about two-thirds of top U.S. Catholic leaders had allowed priests accused of sexual abuse to continue working.

In Maine, the diocese decided to turn their personnel records over to prosecutors for review. Investigators for Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson and Attorney General Rowe reviewed church records, contacted victims and conducted preliminary inquiries into the allegations contained in the files.

Anderson in May announced that the review had yielded allegations of sexual misconduct by 51 priests, 33 living and 18 dead.

The newspapers have not asked the state to release case information about priests who are alive because those cases are currently under investigation.

Last month, the cases were distributed to county prosecutors in each district in Maine to investigate more thoroughly incidents alleged to have occurred in their jurisdiction. The prosecutors, with help from local police, will determine whether any criminal cases can be brought, though in many cases the activity happened too long ago to bring charges.

The newspapers' case for access to the information is based on the premise that the records are public documents and are not exempt form public records laws.

"We do not take this step lightly," Guttman said. "We decided to file a lawsuit, to pursue our strong belief that the files are public record, only after much thought and consideration and only after our requests for the information were denied by the district attorney and the attorney general."

But Stokes argued that the information is investigative in nature and that the Criminal History Records Information Act recognizes that an investigation of an accusation does not automatically create a public record.

"What the Legislature has tried to do is balance the public's right to know with information that should be disclosed with information of an investigative-type nature, which really should not be publicly disclosed because of the harm it could cause to people and the fact that it is raw intelligence," Stokes said. "It may be raw accusations and that may be all it is."

The two sides have agreed that they will spend two weeks preparing their written arguments. Then, the state will turn over the documents in question to a judge who will confidentially review them before making a decision.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

The straight scoop: Separation of Church and State...the judge will tell the PPH to do their own investigative reporting.

It is better to be Dragon Master than Dragon Slayer. Some Dragons are meant to be mastered, others meant to be slain. Odin, Great Spirit, God, grant me the wisdom to know the difference. "May the Valar guide and bless you on your path under the sky"