court rules priests' records aren't sacred
By Tona Kunz, Daily Herald Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2004
The Rockford Catholic Diocese must allow trial judges to review
internal church documents when clergy are accused of crimes,
Illinois' 2nd Appellate Court ruled Tuesday.
The court -- not the church -- gets to make the determination
whether to keep information out of the courtroom, justices
wrote in the opinion.
The court also ruled that confessional privilege does not
extend to panels investigating alleged abuse.
Law experts heralded the ruling as precedent-setting and
one that will pave the way to greater transparency in abuse
lawsuits against clergy members.
"It brings the church in line with what is required
of other organizations," said Rodney Blackman, a law
professor at DePaul University. "If you were to substitute
a secular organization for the Catholic Church, and it was
alleged to have done a cover up, I think that all the internal
memos would be subject to discovery."
Kane County Assistant State's Attorney Jody Gleason said
the ruling could potentially remove hurdles to prosecution
of future cases involving religion organizations.
"We obviously think the ruling is a very good ruling
and we are certainly very happy that the public opinion is
out there as a precedent," she said.
Diocese attorney Ellen Lynch did not return a call to find
out whether the diocese will appeal the decision.
The court said the church must follow the same rules as secular
organizations and hand over personnel files, transfer records
for church assignments and the results of internal church
investigations to a trial judge to decide whether any of the
information falls under legal privilege and can be kept out
The Rockford Diocese refused to hand over those documents
to the Kane County state's attorney's office in the case of
former Geneva priest Mark Campobello, who is scheduled to
head to prison Friday. Diocesan attorneys contended that church
law required information generated by the church's misconduct
investigations remain confidential in order to encourage others
to come forward.
The court concluded that church law did not supersede criminal
"Merely because Canon 489 is controlling the internal
operation of the affairs of the church does not mean that
it permits evidence pertaining to sexual molestation of children
by priests to be secreted and shielded from discovery that
is otherwise proper," Justice Jack O'Malley wrote in
Similarly, the justices shot down arguments that outside
involvement in an internal church investigation is a violation
of freedom of religion as set up by the U.S. Constitution
and protected by "critical self-analysis privilege."
The court ruled the diocese failed to prove that turning
over the records would impinge upon the freedom of religion,
how the church administered its school or parish or how it
determined whether Campobello violated church law. The state
was only seeking records for use in a secular court.
"There is no potential for state subversion of religious
Justices also ruled that discussion between Campobello and
the church's investigation commission did not qualify as protected
under the guise of his seeking spiritual guidance.
The ruling could have implications on church abuse lawsuits
across the state. Although other districts are not bound by
the ruling, appellate judge's typically weigh decisions in
other courts, said J. Michael Weilmuenster, a Belleville attorney
fighting Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville for mental health
records of a priest accused of abuse.
"It does dovetail into my case because a lot of the
documents they have claimed to be privilege are notes and
correspondences," Weilmuenster said. "Slowly but
surely you see the courts recognizing the enormity of this
problem and trying to address ways the victims get the documents
and information that they are entitled, to find out what the
In Illinois, it typically has been the clergy that has decided
what to be kept private, experts said. The appellate ruling
leaves that decision up to the trial judge when it is unclear
whether the internal church discussions were solely for spiritual
guidance for the accused.
"That is exactly the line that needs to be drawn in
these types of cases," said Northwestern law Professor
Ronald Allen. "They are not, and should not be, viewed
as above the law."
The appellate court's upholding of a Kane County judge's
order for the documents likely will have little impact on
Campobello's criminal charges. But the ruling has implications
for future cases, including possible civil suits against him.
Campobello, 39, has until June 13 to withdraw his plea of
guilty to aggravated criminal sexual abuse against two teen
girls at St. Peter Elementary School in Geneva and Aurora
Central Catholic High School. He has been sentenced to eight
years in prison. His attorneys did not return calls on whether
he would stick with his plea.