Media Companies Successfully Fight for Access to Information About Church Officials’ Role in Priest Sex Scandal

DWT Media Law April 12, 2013 Comments Off on Media Companies Successfully Fight for Access to Information About Church Officials’ Role in Priest Sex Scandal
Media Companies Successfully Fight for Access to Information About Church Officials’ Role in Priest Sex Scandal
By Kelli L. Sager, Rochelle L. Wilcox, and Jonathan Segal

In the latest chapter of the longstanding fight for information about accused pedophile priests, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles recently was ordered to release documents that reveal the identities of Church officials who knew about the accusations of child abuse by Catholic priests in Southern California – including some individuals who acted to protect the accused priests from liability.  The release of more than 12,000 pages of documents occurred after the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press intervened in the case, seeking to oppose a special master’s recommendation that would have redacted the names of church officials who played a role in oversight of the accused pedophile priests.  After reviewing the Los Angeles Times’ and Associated Press’ (the “Press Organizations”) objections, and after a lengthy hearing, Judge Emilie Elias rejected the proposed redactions, and ordered that the names of any individual involved in the supervision of the accused priests must be released.

Settlement Of Civil Cases And Agreement To Release Records

Abuse victims sued the Archdiocese in 2002, alleging that dozens of priests in Southern California had sexually abused children, and the Archdiocese and its leader, Cardinal Roger Mahoney, acted to cover up the scandal.  In 2007, the Archdiocese and the victims settled all the claims, with the Archdiocese paying $660 million to the victims.  As part of the settlement, the victims also obtained an agreement that the Archdiocese would publicly release documents related to the abuse allegations, including personnel files of the accused priests.  The parties agreed that the scope of release would be referred to a special master, whose decision would not be challenged by the parties; the agreement further provided, however, that the Superior Court retained jurisdiction over the matter, and that third parties could object to the recommendations.

Former federal district court judge Dickran Tevrizian was appointed to be the special master.  In proceedings before Judge Tevrizian, the Archdiocese fought to keep the scope of the release as narrow as possible.  Counsel for the victims sought a broad release of information.  After extensive briefing over a 2-year period, the special master issued a report recognizing the substantial public interest in information about the accusations, and recommended the release of documents that included personnel files of the accused priests. Paradoxically, however, the special master recommended that the Archdiocese be permitted to redact the names of church hierarchy who were identified in the records, including those who were supervising the accused priests.  In accordance with the settlement agreement, the special master’s report and recommendations were submitted to Judge Elias for approval.  Because the victims had agreed not to challenge the special master’s recommendations, the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press (“Press Organizations”) led the fight for release of the documents with the church hierarchy’s names intact.

Press Organizations Intervene to Argue For Disclosure of Names of Church Officials

Initially, the Archdiocese indicated that it would oppose the Press Organizations’ attempt to challenge the special master’s recommendations.  After the Press Organizations filed a motion to intervene, however, the Archdiocese agreed to stipulate to the intervention and deal with the merits of the media organizations’ objections to the recommendations.  The Press Organizations’ brief supported the release of broad categories of documents, and implored Judge Elias to forbid the Archdiocese from redacting the names of church officials who knew about or had any involvement in supervising the accused priests.

First, the Press Organizations argued that an order from the Court governing the release of the documents was tantamount to a protective order.  Under California (and federal) law, the party seeking a protective order must establish good cause.  See, e.g., Mercury Interactive Corp. v. Klein, 158 Cal. App. 4th 60 (2007).  Because the Archdiocese had not demonstrated good cause to keep the names of church hierarchy secret, the Press urged the Court to forbid the redaction of the documents.

Second, the Press Organizations argued that because the settlement agreement required the personnel files to be publicly disclosed, the public and press were in the position of third party beneficiaries to the settlement agreement.  See Service Employees Int’l Union, Local 99 v. Options–A Child Care & Human Services Agency, 200 Cal. App. 4th 869 (2011) (“SEIU”).  In SEIU, a nonprofit organization entered into a series of contracts with a state agency, in which the nonprofit agreed to abide by California’s law requiring state agencies to hold open meetings.  The nonprofit subsequently held a meeting without proper notice and was sued by an individual and a union – both nonparties to the contract – for breach of contract and violation of the open meetings law.  Although neither plaintiff was party to the contract, the court found that plaintiffs had standing as members of the public to sue to enforce the contractual obligation to comply with state law, which was imposed for “the benefit of the general public.”

Third, the media organizations argued that the documents – which had been submitted to the Court for review – were court records, and therefore, there was a presumptive right of access under the First Amendment and the common law.  The California Supreme Court has recognized that the public and press have standing to challenge any restrictions on access to court records, including protective orders, and should be provided an opportunity to be heard even before such orders are issued.  NBC Subsidiary (KNBC-TV), Inc. v. Superior Court, 20 Cal. 4th 1178 (1999).

The Court Orders Release of Hierarchy Names

After considering briefs from the Press Organizations, the plaintiffs, the Archdiocese and the accused priests, the Court ordered the Archdiocese to release names of supervisors, including cardinals, bishops, archbishops, and the Vicar for Clergy, as well as any lower officials who were charged with supervising accused priests.  The Court explained that the release would allow people to “know what went on in their own local church,” and “to understand how this happened,” to help people guard against similar conduct in the future.

When the Archdiocese began releasing the materials, The Times and AP reported at length on the revelations included in the materials, including the many documents showing that Cardinal Roger Mahoney knew about the accusations, but did not report them to the police.

Dozens of news stories have been published concerning the information contained in the documents released so far.  The victims, along with The Times and AP, have voiced their beliefs that other documents still are being kept secret, and names have been redacted that Judge Elias’ order required to be released.  As of this writing, the final chapter has not yet been concluded.

This is not the first time news organizations have had to intervene in the Clergy Cases for the release of information.  The Los Angeles Times successfully intervened earlier in the case to unseal Cardinal Mahoney’s deposition.  It also successfully fought an attempt by the Archdiocese to obtain a prior restraint.

Davis Wright Tremaine partners Kelli L. Sager and Rochelle L. Wilcox, and associate Jonathan L. Segal, represented the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press in this matter.

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