May 11, 2006 in City

S-R seeks copies of church sex abuse claims

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The Spokesman-Review is seeking a federal bankruptcy judge’s approval to obtain copies of sexual abuse claims filed against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane – some of which might name priests who are still active in the clergy.

The newspaper has formally objected to a diocese motion to seal court records in the case and proposed a compromise to view versions of the claims in which the names of sexual abuse victims have been deleted. Such copies have already been made available to attorneys and others working on the case.

Lawyers for Bishop William Skylstad have rejected the newspaper’s request for access to the claims.

The disagreement will be heard Monday by U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Patricia Williams.

“This is a public safety issue,” said Carla Savalli, senior editor for local news. “The public and parishioners deserve to know the names of priests who’ve been accused of abuse, particularly if they’re still serving in churches and schools. The newspaper is seeking a balance between the sensitive issues facing victims and the public’s right to be informed.”

Shaun Cross, attorney for the diocese, said keeping the claims confidential is a matter of fairness to priests; the diocese is concerned that the disclosure of unfounded allegations could be devastating to them. The diocese determines whether allegations are unfounded based on an internal review system, he said.

As an example, Bishop Skylstad says he has been wrongly accused of sexual abuse by a woman now living in Europe and has hired a personal lawyer and a private investigator. The bishop categorically denies the allegations dating back to the early 1960s. That claim was not made public until The Spokesman-Review learned of the allegation.

A recent court filing in a related lawsuit said that more than a dozen as-yet-unnamed perpetrators have been accused in the claims that the newspaper seeks. That assertion was made by CNA, a large insurance conglomerate that once sold policies to the diocese, in a federal lawsuit pitting the diocese against several liability insurers.

The diocese has filed a motion to seal the claims – now numbering approximately 175 – in order to protect the identities of sexual abuse victims, according to court records.

Other parties involved in the complicated bankruptcy have taken no position on the newspaper’s request to see the edited claims, including two creditors’ committees appointed to represent sex-abuse victims in the case; the court-appointed attorney representing people who may come forward with claims in the future; the Association of Parishes, a group of priests and laity from each of the diocese’s 82 parishes; and the U.S. Trustee’s office, which watchdogs the bankruptcy process on behalf of the federal government.

Newspaper editors have asked the court to modify an earlier order that led to a protocol governing the confidentiality of sex abuse claims in the case. The Spokesman-Review has offered an alternative protocol that would allow reporters access to the claims, minus victims’ names.

The diocese makes several arguments against the newspaper’s effort.

First, the diocese contends that the newspaper’s attempt is procedurally flawed.

Second, though the diocese acknowledges legal language favoring public access to court records, it notes the ability of the bankruptcy court to “protect a person with respect to scandalous or defamatory matter.”

Third, the diocese contends complying with the newspaper’s request to view the edited claims and court filings would be logistically difficult and impose a financial burden on the diocese.

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