Monday, July 20, 2009

Bridgeport's Last Stand

After Connecticut's highest court ruled last month in favor of newspapers seeking the release of 12,000 files on clergy accused of sex abuse in the diocese of Bridgeport, the church's legal team announced its plans to appeal the decision to the US Supreme Court:
"The diocese believes there are important constitutional issues touching on religious beliefs and privacy issues that are important to pursue," Johnson said.

Church officials said in a statement Friday that there are two main reasons to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court: the state court's unconstitutional interpretation of what a "judicial document" is and the First Amendment rights of the priests involved.

The Connecticut Supreme Court was wrong to decide that all documents filed with the court, sealed or not, are "judicial documents" and presumed to be accessible to the public and the media, church officials said.

"The purpose of the 'judicial document' doctrine is to shine light on the information used in the decision-making process of the courts, not to grant the media unfettered access into the private affairs of individuals and organizations," the church statement said.

It will then take time for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether to hear the case. The court gets thousands of writs but usually decides to hear fewer than 100 each session.

The church is asking the state Supreme Court to keep the files sealed at least until the higher court has decided whether to take up the diocese's appeal. Critics of the diocese questioned the church's motives for continuing a legal fight that it has lost at every step of the process.

"No one wins here except a handful of self-serving, secretive top Catholic officials whose complicity in child sex crimes remains hidden even longer," said David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "This is more evidence that there has been virtually no reform in the church hierarchy despite repeated pledges of openness about pedophile priests."

The attempt to get the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, known officially as Rosado v. Bridgeport Roman Catholic Diocesan Corp., is the last legal maneuver church officials can take in what has been a protracted battle with media organizations trying to get the files unsealed.

Four newspapers, The [Hartford] Courant, New York Times, Boston Globe and Washington Post, have been fighting since 2002 to get the files unsealed.

Many of the lawsuits go back to the mid-1990s and were settled all at once in March 2001. The files, however, were not destroyed and the newspapers went to court seeking intervenor status in the cases.

The state Supreme Court ruled in May, 4-1, that the court documents involving 23 lawsuits against seven priests from the diocese should be unsealed.

The court ruled that all but 15 of the more than 12,600 documents in the 23 separate files are public records. Those 15 documents, at least two of which are depositions, were not submitted as legal documents and are to remain sealed.
Under the Supreme Court's standard protocol, four justices must agree to hear a case for it to make the docket. When certiorari (review) isn't granted, the prior ruling is upheld.

The Supremes are in recess until October. With the expected confirmation of Judge Sonia Sotomayor likely to come before the Senate's August break, the ascent of the first Latino justice would give the top bench its sixth Catholic.