Nebraska dioceses: Privacy law impedes providing AG with some records

The Lancaster County courthouse in Lincoln Neb Credit Ammodramus via Wikimedia public domain The Lancaster County courthouse in Lincoln, Neb. | Ammodramus via Wikimedia (public domain).

At a hearing in Lincoln on Thursday, the Archdiocese of Omaha and the Diocese of Lincoln explained that they have not provided the state attorney general with some records because of privacy laws.

The Nebraska attorney general's office issued subpoenas in February to some 400 Catholic churches and institutions, seeking any records related to child sexual assault or abuse.

While the vast majority of requested records have been submitted, psychiatric evaluations, medical records, and confidential settlement agreements have not.

"Those are the only things we have not turned over," said Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor of the Omaha archdiocese, said at a May 2 hearing in Lancaster County District Court, the Omaha World-Herald reported.

The pscyh evals and medical records are protected by federal privacy laws, he said: "If the court would order us to turn those records over, we would be happy to do so. But we won't violate federal privacy laws."

Similarly, settlements include confidentiality clauses agreed to by abuse victims: "That victim expects us to honor that confidentiality agreement, and that's what we're going to do, unless ordered otherwise by a court," McNeil stated.

In 2018 the attorney general's office asked that the state's three dioceses voluntarily provide information on sexual abuse and other misconduct committed since 1978. Each of the dioceses indicated their cooperation with that request.

This March, the Omaha archdiocese and the Lincoln diocese applied for injunctive relief from the subpoenas, in part to clarify their scope and to set deadlines that can be reasonably met.

At the hearing, Assistant Attorney General Ryan Post acknowledged that many of the requested records are being submitted.

But he complained of the omissions, and said some records were redacted, with some names being substituted by initials.

McNeil explained that the Omaha archdiocese had not redacted the records and that initials were regularly used in correspondence, in part to preserve victims' privacy.

In March, the archdiocese said it had submitted more than 11,500 pages of records to the attorney general's office.

The Lincoln diocese said in February that it has "voluntarily cooperated with the investigation since it was announced last September, and pledged its ongoing support to stop criminal behavior by predators."

Bishop Joseph Hanefeldt of Grand Island, the third diocese in the state, said Feb. 26 that "while we don't believe subpoenas were necessary, we will continue to share information with the Nebraska Attorney General's Office to bring this investigation to a conclusion. The Diocese is committed to the protection of children and safety of all, and to that end, has cooperated with the Nebraska Attorney's Office in a voluntary review of files."

The inquiry in Nebraska follows new or revisited allegations of sexual abuse of minors or other misconduct committed by priests in the Lincoln diocese as far back as the 1980s. Several priests have resigned as pastors, while alleged misconduct of a former vocations director for the diocese, who died in 2008, also became a matter of public attention.

The Lincoln diocese announced last month that it is adopting new, comprehensive safe environment policies and that it will investigate the alleged misconduct by Msgr Leonard Kalin, the former vocations director.

The diocese also released a list of diocesan priests against whom substantiated allegations of childhood sexual abuse have been reported.

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