The Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn. and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have expressed disappointment at the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to extend a stay on the release of personnel files to several major newspapers. They said the refusal marked a “serious threat” to First Amendment rights.
Newspapers including the Hartford Courant and the New York Times have reportedly sought access to the personnel files to determine how the recently retired Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Edward Egan, handled sexual abuse cases during his time as Bishop of Bridgeport.
The material includes 12,600 pages of depositions, exhibits and legal arguments involving 23 lawsuits against seven priests from the Diocese of Bridgeport. Most of the lawsuits were filed in the mid-1990s and were settled in 2001 for an undisclosed amount with the agreement that the settlements and the documents would remain sealed forever.
“We are disappointed that the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to extend the stay,” the Diocese of Bridgeport said in a statement on October 5, claiming that the content of the sealed documents had already been provided to alleged victims’ lawyers and had been extensively reported on.
In the diocese’s backgrounder, it charged that a Connecticut superior court judge changed the rules “mid stream” to allow the newspapers to intervene in the settled cases.
The diocese also charged that the judge used “anti-Catholic Church rhetoric.”
According to the diocese, it appealed the superior court’s decision because it “violated its privilege claims” and threatened the reputations of innocent persons.
The case involves constitutional issues such as under what circumstances a party can be considered to have waived its legal privileges, including First Amendment rights.
Further, it concerns what documents produced in pre-trial discovery can be considered public documents. The diocese asserted that documents produced in the pre-trial period can be “inaccurate, incomplete, or irrelevant” for the purposes of the case.
The Appellate Court of Connecticut ruled in favor of the Diocese of Bridgeport’s appeal. However, the Connecticut Supreme Court held that the diocese had waived its privileges in complying with the pre-trial court orders. The court also classified the contested materials as “judicial documents” that must be released to the public.
The Connecticut Supreme Court stayed its decision pending the diocese’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The diocese’s Monday statement reiterated that it has addressed clerical sexual abuse “compassionately and comprehensively.”
“For now, however, the serious threat to the First Amendment rights of all churches and the rightful privacy of all litigants remain in jeopardy because of the decision of the Connecticut Supreme Court. This, indeed, is regrettable,” the Diocese of Bridgeport stated.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) also said on Monday that the case implicated “important principles.” The conference warned of the risk that processes designed for the legitimate disclosure of documents would be abused in particular cases.
This might result in “the excessive entanglement of the state in the affairs of the Church,” the USCCB commented.
“We must insist upon fair treatment for the Church in accordance with the rule of law, so that the intense emotions surrounding sexual abuse cases do not result in decisions that would deny the Church the same legal protections—including those regarding disclosure of documents—that any other party would enjoy.”
Expressing their “fraternal support” for Bishop Lori, the bishops expressed gratitude for his “strong defense” of his diocese, especially praising “the balance he has tried to strike among the principles of compassion, transparency, religious freedom, fundamental fairness, and the rule of law.”