Friday, July 18, 2003

Sealing of church records opposed

Advocate of sexually abused says disclosure vital to protect children

The Associated Press

CLEVELAND - An advocate for people sexually abused by priests says victims would be discouraged from coming forward if a judge accepts the Cuyahoga County prosecutor's request to seal church records.

Prosecutor Bill Mason, who directed a grand jury investigation of alleged clergy sexual abuse in the Cleveland Roman Catholic Diocese, had advocated that the documents be publicly released.

He changed his position in a recent court filing, asking Common Pleas Judge Brian Corrigan to keep over 50,000 investigative documents secret.

"It's very disturbing," David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Thursday. "Thousands of taxpayers' dollars have been spent on this. Taxpayers deserve to learn what was uncovered and to have their children protected."

Clohessy is national director of SNAP, a 50-chapter group based in Chicago that provides a place for victims to disclose sexual abuse.

He said future criminal investigations will be hampered if the investigative records are kept secret.

"Any victim or witness would have to ask, 'Why put myself through this trauma?' - when little if anything happens as an end result," Clohessy said.

The investigation led to indictments against one priest and six church employees. Allegations against 145 priests were reviewed, but some cases were too old to pursue under the statute of limitations.

A decision by Corrigan on whether the investigative records should be released isn't expected for several months.

Clohessy said SNAP might file a brief with the judge.

"We'll do anything we can to try to persuade him to change his mind, although we're not optimistic," he said.

Assistant Prosecutors Robert Coury and Timothy Miller said the prosecutor's office reversed its position after reassessing Ohio's law barring public disclosure of grand jury investigative materials.

"As we got further into our investigation, it became pretty clear to us that the law provides a total ban on our ability to release these records," Coury said Wednesday. "If we don't give the judge the opportunity for limited disclosure, he may not have the opportunity for any disclosure."

Mason's seven-month investigation ended in December.

He initially said he thought the public had a right to know whether priests or lay people accused of sexual abuse continued to have access to children, and said he was inclined to disclose the documents.

Mason now says they should only be released to the diocese and appropriate public service agencies, such as child protection agencies.

Miller said the latest filing would meet Mason's goal of protecting children by providing the names of accused offenders to agencies such as the Department of Children and Family Services, police departments and community block-watch groups.

"Our interest is in getting this information out to as many agencies as possible for the sake of protecting children," Miller said.

Lawyers for the diocese have argued in court documents that the investigative files should remain sealed.

Diocese spokesman Robert Tayek said Thursday the prosecutor is aware that the diocese would want to receive information on abuse allegations involving clergy still in public ministry or on administrative leave.

"In addition, because witnesses are not themselves bound to secrecy in such matters, the prosecutor can urge those witnesses independently to provide the diocese with all relevant information," he said.

But he said the diocese continues to oppose public dissemination to the media of the information gathered through the grand jury process.

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