High court won’t block release of Conn. priest-abuse records

Monday, October 5, 2009

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The Supreme Court refused today to block the release of documents generated by lawsuits against priests in Connecticut for alleged sexual abuse.

The high court also turned aside appeals in several other First Amendment-related cases, including disputes over “Choose Life” plates in Illinois, a sheriff’s election in Kentucky, lobbying laws in Florida, a libel case in Illinois, and Episcopal-church property in California.

In the Connecticut case, the justices turned down a request by the Roman Catholic diocese in Bridgeport to review the state high court’s decision in Rosado v. Bridgeport Roman Catholic Diocesan Corp. et al.

Several newspapers are seeking the release of more than 12,000 pages from 23 lawsuits against six priests.

The records have been under seal since the diocese settled the cases in 2001. Courts in Connecticut have ruled that the documents should be made public.

The decision ends a legal battle that dragged on for years and could shed light on how recently retired New York Cardinal Edward Egan handled the allegations when he was Bridgeport bishop.

It’s unclear when the documents will be released.

Waterbury Superior Court clerk Philip Groth says he needs to consult a judge to determine whether a hearing is necessary before the records are released. He said this morning it was unlikely the documents would be released today.

The Bridgeport diocese, which had argued unsuccessfully that the documents were subject to religious privileges under the First Amendment, said it was disappointed in the decision.

“The content of the sealed documents soon to be released has already been extensively reported on,” the diocese said in a statement. “For more than a decade, the Catholic Church in Bridgeport has addressed the issue of clergy 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.”

A telephone message left today for an attorney for the newspapers wasn’t returned in time for this story.

A Waterbury Superior Court said in 2006 that the documents were subject to a presumption of public access. The Connecticut Supreme Court upheld the lower court decision.

Barbara Blaine, founder of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, welcomed today’s high court action.

“This decision sends a clear message to those who would endanger kids: eventually, you’ll have to face the music and reveal your callousness, recklessness and deceit,” Blaine said in a statement. “We hope that this ruling will deter every pedophile’s supervisor and co-workers from protecting a predator.”

She urged Bridgeport Bishop William E. Lori to disclose how much the diocese spent in church donations on the case.

But the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement supporting Lori’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The bishops said they had taken steps to protect children and help victims of sexual abuse.

“However, when a claim of sexual abuse results in litigation, we must remain vigilant against the risk that court-enforced avenues for the legitimate disclosure of documents are not abused in particular cases, resulting in the excessive entanglement of the state in the affairs of the Church,” the bishops’ statement said.

Choose Life Illinois, Inc. v. White
The Supreme Court has refused to hear an anti-abortion’s group request to force the state of Illinois to issue “Choose Life” license plates.

The high court today left in place the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Choose Life Illinois, Inc. v. White that state officials were within their rights in trying to keep viewpoints on abortion off of Illinois license plates. Choose Life Illinois, Inc. sued in an effort to force the state to issue the plates.

Greenwell v. Parsley
Faced with the prospect of an election challenge from one of his deputies, Sheriff Paul Parsley of Bullitt County, Ky., fired David Greenwell for trying “to take my job away from me.”

The Supreme Court declined today to consider whether the dismissal violated the deputy’s civil rights. Lower courts had previously ruled in the sheriff’s favor.

The high court rejected an appeal that tested whether the First Amendment protects public employees who seek to challenge their boss at the polls. Or, as the lower federal courts said in this case, is the declaration of candidacy “an act of insubordination not protected by the First Amendment?”

The dispute arose in September 2005, when the Louisville Courier-Journal and another newspaper published articles that discussed Deputy Sheriff Greenwell’s candidacy for sheriff in the county south of Louisville. Parsley summoned Greenwell to his office and asked him about the reports.

When Greenwell confirmed them, Parsley said, “That’s all I need to know.” He fired Greenwell the same day. The deputy sued Parsley in federal court.

A federal judge and the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati sided with Parsley, but Greenwell suggested in court filings that other appeals courts had said that the First Amendment could apply in similar situations.

In the end, neither man got the job. Parsley lost the Democratic primary and Greenwell, a Republican, lost the general election.

Florida lobbying-ethics law
The justices have decided not to hear a lobbying group’s challenge to Florida’s strict lobbying-ethics law.

The Court today rejected a challenge to the 2005 law. The state banned lobbyists from giving gifts to legislators and other elected officials. It also required them to file disclosure statements saying who pays them and how much.

If a Florida lobbyist doesn’t comply or someone complains, lawmakers can investigate and punish lobbyists with up to a two-year suspension and a $5,000 fine.

Lobbyists challenged the law in court, saying that the disclosure requirement and the gift ban violated the First and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled against them, and the Supreme Court refused to consider an appeal of that ruling.

The case is Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists v. Division of Legislative Information Services of the Florida Office of Legislative Services.

Thomas Knight v. Chicago Tribune Co.
The Supreme Court has refused to revive a libel claim against the Chicago Tribune by a former prosecutor who accused the newspaper of a “witch hunt” against him.

The Court today turned down an appeal from former DuPage County, Ill., Assistant State’s Attorney Thomas Knight. He had argued that the paper defamed him in a front-page story in 1999 concerning allegations that he and several law enforcement officers framed a man for the rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl.

Knight and the others were acquitted of criminal charges. The alleged rapist also was acquitted after his third trial.

After Knight filed a libel lawsuit, a jury sided with the newspaper. A state appellate court upheld that ruling.

St. James Parish v. Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles
The high court has refused to get involved in a dispute between breakaway Episcopalians and their former national church over who owns a California church and its property.

The justices today refused to hear an appeal from the St. James Anglican Church in the Diocese of Los Angeles. It is one of several dozen individual parishes and four dioceses nationwide that voted to split from the national church after the 2003 consecration of the first openly gay Episcopal bishop in New Hampshire.

The California Supreme Court ruled that while St. James had the right to split off from the larger church, the congregation could not take parish property with it, even though the parish has held the deed to the church for decades.

The Episcopal Church has argued that its rules bar anyone from walking away with denomination property, which often includes large endowments and land worth millions of dollars. The conservatives who want to separate say they have spent years, even decades, spending money to maintain and improve the buildings.

St. James is now aligned with the Anglican Church of North America, a network of seceding Episcopal parishes and other congregations that was formed by theological conservatives as a rival to the Episcopal Church.

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