Priest Scandal May Benefit Press Access

By: Joe Strupp

When The Boston Globe won access to sealed court documents for dozens of sexual-abuse civil suits against the Archdiocese of Boston late last year, the paper launched a wave of similar cases that some legal experts believe could set precedents for newspaper access in the future.

Several other newspapers, including The New York Times, The Hartford (Conn.) Courant, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, have taken similar steps to get at records from priest abuse cases. At the same time, other papers are gearing up for court fights that they believe will be more winnable because of the Globe victory.

“Every time it happens, it makes it easier the next time,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which tracks such cases. “But for this to have precedence, you need more than one judge.”

Jonathan Albano, who represented the Globe in its court fight and is handling the Times‘ latest efforts to get documents, agreed. “It could cause people to revisit the prevailing view that it’s a good rule to keep it private,” he said.

The most recent requests began March 26, when the Times filed a motion seeking access to sealed records in more than two dozen lawsuits involving priests accused of sexually abusing youngsters in the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn. Most of the cases were settled last year. Also on March 26, the Journal Sentinel filed motions in three Wisconsin counties seeking access to sealed documents in seven cases of alleged priest abuse of children.

While the Times, which was joined in its motion by the Courant, is awaiting a decision on its request, the Journal Sentinel on April 5 won the right to unseal documents in four of the seven cases, all in Milwaukee County.

“I think judges are well aware of the controversy that this has created,” said Brady Williamson, a Journal Sentinel attorney who is handling the motions. “The precedent that is being set in the priest cases will be applicable in cases that are not as notorious.”

But the historic implications have caused at least one newspaper to think twice about suing for access. Linda Lightfoot, executive editor of The Advocate in Baton Rouge, La., said her newspaper is still deciding whether to file a motion for access to sealed records in the case of a former priest who was dismissed in the 1990s for alleged abuse.

“There is the cost of the lawsuit and the precedent you would be setting if you are not successful,” Lightfoot said. “Litigation is expensive, so if you file, you want to get something for it.” Although the newspaper has not gained access to confidential records, it has obtained the priest’s name and the amount of the settlement from other sources.

As such cases continue, opinions vary over how much impact they will have. Some observers, such as Eve Burton, a First Amendment attorney who has worked for the New York Daily News, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and CNN, believe every press victory helps future cases. “Judges love precedent,” said Burton, who is currently teaching constitutional law at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. “The more cases you have, the more look-see you get.”

But others, such as Sandra Baron, executive director of the Libel Defense Resource Center, take a more cynical view. “The courts don’t have the time or manpower, and in some cases judges don’t have the interest in opening documents to the public,” she said. “I don’t think it will mean much.”

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