By DAVE ALTIMARI The Hartford Courant
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport has lost every legal battle so far to keep secret the sex abuse cases involving priests, but Bishop William Lori said Monday that he has no regrets about taking this case all the way to the nation’s highest court.
“Principles assert themselves in the darnedest places. It would not be a good idea for us to say serious constitutional issues aren’t important to us and we should just go away and bury our heads in the sand,” Lori said in an interview with The Courant.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a motion by the diocese’s New York attorneys to temporarily keep sealed court documents on clergy sex abuse cases.
The high court has not decided whether to hear the diocese’s appeal of the Connecticut Supreme Court’s ruling that more than 12,600 documents from 23 clergy sex abuse cases, sealed since the cases were settled in 2001, should become public.
Church officials privately acknowledge that the court’s decision not to issue the stay does not bode well for the future of their appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court. Attorneys for the diocese expect the high court to rule on their petition by early November.
Late Monday, attorneys for the diocese filed motions at Superior Court in Waterbury seeking a status conference to determine which documents will be made public and to ensure that the few documents the state Supreme Court ruled should be sealed remain so.
Four newspapers – The New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post and The Courant – have been fighting for eight years to get the documents unsealed.
Lori said he is “disappointed” with the high court’s ruling. But the issues at stake, he said, especially the church’s First Amendment rights “that a church may not be compelled to disclose internal documents relating to hierarchical determinations regarding fitness for ministry,” justify the drawn-out legal battle.
But parishioners that he talks with after church services, Lori said, are more concerned about the state of the schools, the increase in seminarians in the diocese and getting him to say a prayer for a sick relative.
“While this legal proceeding is important, it really is about the future, not the past,” Lori said. “It should not overshadow the true culture change that has been effected across the church regarding our knowledge of and ability to deal with sexual abuse, or the many, many good things that are happening every day in this diocese across our parishes and our schools.”
Critics of Lori, especially victims in priest abuse cases, have said that the bishop has spent church finances fighting to uphold the reputation of retired Cardinal Edward Egan.
Among the court documents are three depositions by Egan, who was in charge of the Bridgeport diocese when most of the lawsuits against priests under his control were filed and adjudicated. Egan recently retired as the archbishop of New York.
The Courant obtained copies of Egan’s depositions, which show that he knowingly transferred priests who had been accused of sexually molesting boys to different parishes and rarely removed an alleged pedophile priest from service.
“Bishop Lori must stop wasting untold hundreds of thousands of parishioners’ dollars to prevent these same parishioners, and the public, from finding out how Lori’s predecessors, including recently retired Cardinal Edward Egan, dealt with cases of sexual abuse of children,” Voice of the Children’s Daniel Bartley said.
Lori clearly has heard the criticism that he’s protecting Egan, but insists that hasn’t been the motive. Lori is quick to point out he wasn’t assigned to the Bridgeport diocese when these cases were brought against the church.
“I could see how they would come to that conclusion,” Lori said of the accusation that he is protecting Egan. “However, the names in these cases were made public years ago and the essential information, including several critiques of the diocese’s handling of the accusations, has been well-covered in the public domain.”
Lori wouldn’t divulge how much in legal fees the diocese has spent fighting this case. He did say that the claim that money donated by parishioners during Sunday Masses was used for legal fees is not true.
Lori said the diocese has used only funds budgeted for annual administrative and legal expenses.
“We’ve been pretty lucky, we’ve had lots of work done pro bono and also at discounted legal rates,” Lori said. “We’ve also had a couple of gifts come in because, believe it or not, there are people who agree that this is important.”
Church officials believe that the church has been treated unfairly by the courts and the media in this case. They point to the fact that judicial officials didn’t destroy the documents in question, leaving open the chance for the newspapers to appeal. They also note that the state judge who initially ruled that the documents should be unsealed was also a member of a committee that was exploring making judicial records more accessible to the public.
“I certainly feel that the rules have been changed midstream just for us and we think that is unfair. Had we felt we had been treated fairly by the courts, we wouldn’t still be fighting this case,” Lori said.
A status conference on how the documents might be made public will be held Nov. 9 at Superior Court in Waterbury.
Copyright 2009, The Hartford Courant