A judge has ordered the Maine attorney general to release details of sex-abuse allegations made against Roman Catholic clergy who are now dead.
In a written decision issued Friday, Superior Court Justice Kirk Studstrup said the privacy rights of alleged victims and abusers named in the files have been eroded by time and the deaths of the priests.
"In contrast," he wrote, "the public interest in allegations of sexual abuse of minors, and particularly how such allegations were or were not investigated by the (Portland) Diocese and law enforcement officials, is of great and appropriate public interest."
The ruling resulted from a lawsuit filed last year by Blethen Maine Newspapers, owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.
Studstrup's order will take effect in 21 days to allow time for Attorney General Steven Rowe to appeal the decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin said the state may appeal, and officials would not immediately release the information.
"We're reviewing it and we're considering our options," she said. "What we'd be looking at is the impact of the decision on our ability to conduct investigations in the future, and the willingness of victims and witnesses to cooperate in those investigations."
Jonathan Piper, a lawyer for the newspapers, praised the ruling. He said releasing the records would not discourage future victims or witnesses from talking to the Attorney General's Office.
"I can't imagine that somebody who was going to report a pedophile priest would worry about whether 20 years later it might show up in the newspaper," he said. "We would hope that, after a year and a half, the state would call an end to this dispute and let the public have the information Justice Studstrup says they're entitled to."
Some of the sought-after records include files turned over to prosecutors by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland on May 1, 2002. Those files contain allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests and other employees during the previous 75 years. Reportedly included in the files are allegations against 18 priests who are no longer living.
On June 4, 2002, the newspapers requested information regarding dead priests who no longer face prosecution, as well as summaries and notes that resulted from the state's investigation of the charges. The Attorney General's Office denied the request, prompting the lawsuit.
Rowe's office argued that the records were exempt from the state's Freedom of Access law because they were part of an ongoing criminal investigation and because the priests have a right to privacy that exists even after they die.
Studstrup gave the attorney general time to complete the investigation before making a ruling. At a hearing earlier this month, the Attorney General's Office said the investigation was complete.
Robbin argued that the records should remain confidential, however, because of the privacy rights of the people named in the files, including those who can no longer defend themselves. Robbin also argued that unsubstantiated allegations collected by the government should not be part of the public record.
Blethen lawyer Sigmund Schutz argued that the information is important to those who want to reform the church, to victims who want the veil of secrecy lifted, and to members of the public who want to know how prosecutors responded to the allegations.
In his ruling Friday, Studstrup rejected a suggestion that the files be edited to remove names, citing the amount of information and the extent to which it is already known, at least at the local level.
The judge also acknowledged that a Maine law court ruling in an unrelated case has limited the state's ability to regulate the administration of personnel policies within the church.
"However," he wrote, "if that administration concerns dealing with allegations of criminal activity, the public interest becomes more apparent and important. Therefore, any residual personal privacy rights which could be claimed for those named in any capacity in the documents must bend to the public interest, and no exceptions to release of these public documents exist under the (Freedom of Access law)."
Cyndi Desrosiers, an advocate for victims who was abused as a girl by a priest in Massachusetts, said the decision could help prevent future abuse and promote healing for victims who may have thought they were the only ones.
"I think this is wonderful that the paper took the initiative, because obviously one of the major problems in the church crisis is that they try to hide everything they know and things are not dealt with properly," she said. "Our hope was that the information would be released so parishes where the abuse happened can have some sort of dialogue, and so more people can come forward and get healing."
Jeannine Guttman, the Press Herald's executive editor and vice president, said the decision was a victory for the public's right to know.
"These records are of crucial importance to understanding how the church handled claims of priest misconduct and how the state's law enforcement agencies reviewed those claims," she said.
Guttman said the court victory doesn't mean the newspapers plan to simply publish names or allegations.
"I want to stress that our ability to now review these cases doesn't automatically mean that we will publish the information we have won access to," she said. "We will review each case and judge its news value and journalistic merits."