May 10, 2007 in City

Diocese fighting to keep court records closed

By The Spokesman-Review
 

On the Web: See documents online at spokesmanreview.com.

Attorneys for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane filed legal documents Wednesday in an attempt to block The Spokesman-Review from gaining public access to court records listing priest-abusers and damage claims expected to be paid as part of a $48 million bankruptcy settlement.

The newspaper lacks “clean hands” and legal standing to ask a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge to release the individual settlement amounts to be set by an independent claims reviewer, diocese attorney Shaun Cross said in a 14-page motion.

Allowing the newspaper access to the “confidential information” at this point also would “require modification” of the bankruptcy settlement plan, unanimously approved by the victim-claimants after a “lengthy and intense negotiation,” Cross said.

The diocese attorneys also accused the newspaper of “obtaining copies of confidential claims through other, presumably illicit, means” – an accusation that was rejected by the newspaper’s senior editors and attorneys.

In an April 16 motion for access to the court documents, the newspaper said it wasn’t seeking the names of victims but was requesting public access to court records that include the identities of priests accused of sexual abuse, some of whom are still active in the diocese. The identities of some of the priests, some of them deceased, have been released by the diocese.

A court hearing, not scheduled at this point, is expected before U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Patricia Williams, who will decide whether to allow public access to the claims and related court documents. Her decision could be appealed to a federal judge in U.S. District Court.

While reviewing various online court documents late last week, Spokesman-Review reporter John Stucke used a simple technique to view more than 50 victims’ names in U.S. Bankruptcy Court records filed by the diocese’s law firm, Paine Hamblen Coffin Brooke and Miller.

The newspaper did not publish the victims’ names nor tell readers how to access the information. The newspaper did notify the law firm of the technical gaffe, and then published a news story about the problem in the next day’s paper.

Cross said The Spokesman-Review “disregarded a simple request” from him and diocese attorney Greg Arpin to delay publication of the news story, forcing the diocese attorneys to contact the Bankruptcy Court judge to get the electronic documents removed from public access.

“The Spokesman-Review, also in direct defiance to this court’s prior rulings on confidentiality, actively engaged in uncovering confidential information, including the names of confidential claimants and others, even though such information was redacted from pleadings on the court’s docket,” Cross said in his motion.

“From the inception of this case, maintaining the confidentiality of information relating to the claims has been of paramount importance and has required procedures and measures beyond those in an ordinary Chapter 11 (bankruptcy) case,” Cross said.

“Despite our simple request late last Friday (May 4) to wait until corrective measures could be taken on the Federal Court’s Web site to prevent others from hacking into the redacted pleadings, The Spokesman-Review refused, regardless of any consequence to the victims of sexual abuse, or the other members of the public it proclaims to protect,” Cross said.

The diocese attorney said the newspaper “has a responsibility to this community to go beyond bromides about publishing ‘what you know, when you know it,’ particularly when you’ve found out what you know in a way that, at a minimum, raises serious ethical issues.”

Those accusations brought this response from Editor Steven A. Smith:

“If this were not such a serious matter, the motion filed by Paine Hamblen attorneys on behalf of the Catholic diocese would be cause for sustained laughter.

“These high-priced lawyers, who were responsible for posting records online that easily could be accessed to reveal the names of priest abuse victims, are now trying to cover their mistake by attacking The Spokesman-Review for exposing them. The citizens of Spokane will see through this shameful little sham.”

Smith said Paine Hamblen has been paid millions in legal fees while “consistently using the legitimately wronged victims of priest abuse as a shield against disclosure of vital information on a legal settlement that will cost area Catholics tens of million of dollars.”

“Paine Hamblen lawyers are being paid millions to keep secrets. Readers pay us 50 cents a day to reveal them. Our value is clear: We tell people what we know when we know it, without fear or favor. And without worrying about Paine Hamblen’s hurt feelings,” Smith said.

Newspaper attorney Tracy LeRoy said The Spokesman-Review “has not, and does not intend to, publish the names of victims, and has made that clear in all of the pleadings it has filed with the court.”

“The diocese is attempting to muddle the issue, which is whether the public should be permitted access to court records related to claims which are paid by the diocese as part of the settlement of this bankruptcy,” LeRoy said.

As for the newspaper viewing victims’ names on a U.S. Bankruptcy Court Web site, LeRoy said the reporter used legal methods available to any member of the public, and then brought the glitch to the diocese’s attention.

“The newspaper did not obtain any information illicitly or illegally,” LeRoy said. “Now the diocese appears to be attempting to shift the blame to the newspaper for the diocese’s mistake of posting information that the diocese was under a court order to keep secret.”

As part of the bankruptcy settlement, unanimously approved by the victims, former U.S. Attorney Kate Pflaumer, of Seattle, was named independent claims reviewer. Victims will be classified in five categories, depending on the nature and duration of the sexual abuse.

As an officer of the Bankruptcy Court, the tort claims reviewer will divide the $48 million – put up by the diocese, its insurance companies and $10 million from its parishes – among the victims, settling their claims.

“The public is deemed to have a ‘right-to-know’ about the affairs of an entity that has chosen bankruptcy protection,” the newspaper’s attorneys said in the motion seeking public access to the court records.

The Spokane Catholic Diocese bankruptcy, filed to seek protection from the victims’ claims, “is one of the largest ever filed in this district and has affected thousands of local church members,” LeRoy said in the motion.

The 169-year-old diocese ministers to approximately 95,000 Catholics, representing 29,000 households in 13 Eastern Washington counties.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email