.- The Diocese of Bridgeport is defending its legal efforts to keep thousands of documents from settled abuse lawsuits from being unsealed by a Connecticut Supreme Court decision. The diocese’s bishop has alleged that a judge’s apparent conflict of interest and “media self-interest” may have resulted in an unjust decision.
Last week the Connecticut Supreme Court voted 4-1 to unseal more than 12,600 legal documents from 23 lawsuits settled in 2001, the Hartford Courant says.
The diocese reacted with a statement saying it was “deeply disappointed” with the decision. Bishop Lori pointed out on his blog that during the litigation claims of the 1990s victims and their attorneys had access to the records now under seal.
“In 2001, the claims were settled, and the court records, including documents under seal, were set to follow the standard procedure for all claims settled before trial and be destroyed.”
The bishop charged that the secular press “intervened” and demanded access to the files “well after the legal time limit.”
“In a decision replete with anti-Catholic Church rhetoric, the trial judge actually invented an entirely new procedure to accommodate this after-the-fact request from the press,” Bishop Lori added.
He said the Appellate Court of Connecticut “appropriately” overturned the first trial’s decision, but he reported that the state Supreme Court reversed the decision and remanded it to trial judge Jon M. Alander, who ruled against the diocese.
Bishop Lori alleged conflicts of interest could have affected that decision, saying that Judge Alander stood on a judicial committee reviewing the issue of press access to court records. Another member of the committee was a reporter from the Hartford Courant, a party in the case against the Diocese.
The bishop then cited Connecticut Supreme Court Justice William J. Sullivan’s dissent in the case, which said a person of ordinary intelligence and experience “would have reason to question Judge Alander’s impartiality in the present case.”
Justice Sullivan also pointed out that the Hartford Courant and the New York Times had “reported extensively” on the cases from January 1993 until their settlement. The justice said the papers knew about the sealing orders and never sought to challenge the sealing orders while the cases were active.
In Justice Sullivan’s opinion, this fact belied the Supreme Court majority’s argument that access to the documents was sought “to provide a more complete understanding of the judicial process.”
A majority of the Connecticut Supreme Court’s sitting justices rejected the argument that Judge Alander should have recused himself because of possible conflicts of interest.
“The court ruled that just because Alander was a member of the task force did not mean that he could not be fair and impartial,” the Hartford Courant summarized. “It also ruled that just because one of the other members of the judicial task force was a reporter from The Courant did not mean that Alander had a conflict.”
Bishop Lori’s post continued:
“Sadly, the history of this case has been about access by the secular media to internal Church documents of cases more than 30 years ago to suggest, unfairly, that nothing has changed.”
The bishop said the diocese is reviewing its legal options.
"We appreciate that emotions run high on this topic," the diocese said in its statement, adding that its “primary objection to the decision concerns judicial fairness, and the fundamental right of an individual or organization to fair adjudication in any legal proceeding."
The court’s decision becomes official on June 2. The diocese has at least 10 days to file further legal action, which could include asking the Supreme Court to rehear the case with the entire court present, rather than just five members.