Ruling on RI Diocese's Privacy May Open Flood of
By Sam Dillon, The New York Times
July 4, 2002
Over the nine years since Leland White sued the Roman Catholic
church in Rhode Island seeking damages, asserting that his parish
priest sexually abused him in 1970, eight other men have lodged
similar accusations against the same priest, who has pleaded guilty
to criminal abuse charges. But the Diocese of Providence has given
Citing its First Amendment religious rights, the diocese has refused
to turn over thousands of documents requested by Mr. White and nearly
40 other Catholics who have sued the Rhode Island church, saying
they were abused by priests. For nearly a decade, the courts have
upheld the church.
But that appeared to change this week when a state justice, citing
the American bishops' acknowledgment last month at their meeting
in Dallas that the church's culture of secrecy had hurt the church
and its flock, ruled that the First Amendment could not be construed
as a blanket shield protecting the church from requests for information
in inquiries into priestly assaults on children.
"By no elastic stretch of the most fertile imagination can
one rationally conclude that such information or any such communication
deserves or merits confidentiality as expressions of religious freedom,"
Justice Robert D. Krause of State Superior Court wrote in his ruling,
issued on Monday.
Lawyers for people who say they have been abused by priests in
Rhode Island and across the nation called Justice Krause's ruling
a watershed in one of the longest and hardest-fought legal cases
provoked by priestly sexual misconduct. It underlined the way the
American bishops' self-criticism and pledges of more open policies
on sex abuse, made at their June meeting in Dallas, continue to
reverberate, even in the court system.
"Judges are telling the church to stop wasting our time by
coming here and trying to use the First Amendment to defend the
indefensible," said Sylvia Demarest, a lawyer who won a $31
million sex abuse settlement from the Diocese of Dallas in 1997
and was studying Justice Krause's ruling yesterday.
Mr. White, 46, of Arlington, Va., said in an interview that he
was abused by the Rev. James Silva, his parish priest in Newport,
R.I., in 1970, when he was 14. Father Silva, Mr. White said, befriended
him, asked him to help answer the phones one night late at the rectory,
then requested that he stay overnight and crawled into bed with
After Mr. White sued Father Silva, Bishop Louis E. Gelineau and
the Diocese of Providence in 1993, several other men stepped forward
to say they had also been abused by Father Silva, one of them so
recently that the criminal statute of limitations had not expired.
Father Silva was charged and pleaded guilty in 1995 to sexual abuse.
The diocese has barred Father Silva from exercising his ministerial
duties, but Karen Davis, a spokeswoman for the diocese, said she
could not immediately specify when.
Mr. White is one of nearly 40 Catholics who have sued the Diocese
of Providence saying that they were abused by Father Silva and at
least nine other Rhode Island priests. Their suits have been consolidated
before one judge. They have sought fruitlessly for a decade to gain
access to diocesan documents that church officials have routinely
handed over in similar suits elsewhere in the legal process called
"I don't know of any case around the country where so many
victims have been in court for so long and gotten so little,"
said David Clohessy, the St. Louis school administrator who is national
director of the Survivors Network for People Abused by Priests.
William T. Murphy, a lawyer for the Diocese of Providence, did
not say whether he intended to appeal Justice Krause's ruling. He
said it was too early to measure the effect because, he said, the
justice left unclear whether he intended it to be applied only to
documents the plaintiffs might request in the future, or retroactively
to many documents a previous judge had already ruled that the church
did not have to turn over to the plaintiffs. The church has resisted
turning over documents to the plaintiffs in some cases in the consolidated
lawsuit, Mr. Murphy said, to protect the privacy of Rhode Island
Catholics who have given the church confidential information about
"This ruling raises more questions than it answers because
it didn't say anything about these prior orders," Mr. Murphy
But Tim Conlon, a Providence lawyer who represents 32 of the Rhode
Island plaintiffs, said the ruling was anything but ambiguous.
"This is a watershed breakthrough in terms of our ability
to get documents and information," Mr. Conlon said. "In
Rhode Island the Catholic Church has made it its business to clog
the discovery process with complex legal arguments about why information
should not be produced and has avoided releasing actual information."
In his order, Justice Krause cited a document written by the United
States Conference of Bishops in Dallas, the Charter for the Protection
of Children and Young People, in which the bishops acknowledged
that "secrecy has created an atmosphere that has inhibited
the healing process and in some cases enabled sexually abusive behavior
to be repeated."
He cited the Bishops' Charter to illustrate how public understanding
of the church's handling of sex abuse accusations has changed rapidly,
obligating everyone, including the courts, to re-evaluate long-held
"Circumstances have indeed changed," he wrote. "The
church hierarchy became publicly embroiled in a nationwide clamor
for reform and for public disclosure of matters relating to priests
who sexually assault children. Insistence upon disclosure emanated
not only from those not associated with the church, but indeed from
bishops within the church as well."