BY JENNIFER LEVITZ
Journal Staff Writer
PROVIDENCE A Superior Court judge yesterday ruled against a request by the Diocese of Providence to seal from the public the sworn, pretrial testimony of a retired police officer appointed by Bishop Louis E. Gelineau to investigate allegations of sexual abuse by priests.
Judge Robert D. Krause said the diocese’s request appeared to clash with the goals stated last week by the U.S. Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops, in Dallas, for less secrecy in the church’s handling of sexual-abuse allegations.
Krause wrote that the Providence diocese’s request appears “antithetical to the publicly announced position of a ‘commitment to transparency and openness’ recently proclaimed by their colleagues . . .”
Retired Lt. Robert N. McCarthy’s deposition ended quickly two weeks ago when church lawyers refused to allow him to answer questions unless plaintiffs’ lawyers agreed to seal his testimony from the media. McCarthy is scheduled to resume his deposition Tuesday.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers want McCarthy — a retired Massachusetts police officer hired by the diocese in 1993 — to provide details of his investigations and accounts of his conversations with accused priests.
Krause noted that plaintiffs’ lawyers had filed a motion opposing the sealing of McCarthy’s transcript, as had The Providence Journal.
Typically, a witness who gives sworn, pretrial testimony has 30 days to review the transcript for possible mistakes. The testimony then becomes part of the public file of a civil lawsuit.
The diocese argued, in a motion filed with Krause two weeks ago, that an exception should be made. It referred to canon law, which says inquiries about priest misconduct should be made “discreetly, lest anyone’s good name be endangered.”
The church’s lawyers also said that plaintiffs’ lawyers had intended to transform McCarthy’s deposition into a “media event.”
They referred to a June 10 front-page article in The Providence Journal. The article, in discussing the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ request for personnel records on the priests named in the 38 lawsuits against the diocese, said McCarthy was scheduled to be deposed.
Diocesan lawyers, in their motion to seal McCarthy’s deposition, said McCarthy’s transcript should initially be sealed, and that the court should then hold a hearing during which lawyers could argue about what should and should not be made public.
Krause, who is overseeing the litigation against the Providence Diocese, wrote yesterday that “no compelling reasons exist” for such “enshroudment” of information.
James T. Murphy, a lawyer for the Diocese of Providence, yesterday declined to comment on Krause’s ruling, saying he had not had a chance to review the decision.
Timothy J. Conlon is one the plaintiffs’ lawyers who represents the parties in the lawsuits against the diocese. After talks of a settlement collapsed three months ago, lawyers on both sides have begun preparing for trials that could begin by fall. Conlon yesterday said he is “thrilled” that Krause is allowing pretrial discovery to proceed “without any special or unusual impediments to public access to information.”
In Rhode Island, nine clergy have been prosecuted in sexual-abuse cases, and six have been convicted. The attorney general investigated eight additional priests, but did not bring charges. In some cases, the state’s statute of limitations has prevented alleged victims from filing criminal charges against priests.
McCarthy originally came before plaintiffs’ lawyers for his deposition on June 10. At that deposition, the church’s lawyers refused to allow McCarthy to answer most questions, unless Conlon, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, agreed to seal McCarthy’s answers. Conlon refused.
In the Superior Court motion to seal McCarthy’s deposition, the church’s lawyers wrote canon law, in part, protected McCarthy’s investigations. Lawyers wrote that the Providence diocese has “an interest in ensuring that when their faithful (whether clergy or laity) come to them in confidence, those confidences will be respected. They have an interest in knowing that when they undertake an obligation of secrecy under the law of their faith, they will be able to carry it through.”
The lawyers wrote that McCarthy “to the extent he is carrying out a bishop’s obligations under Canon Law, shares these interests.”