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A plea to the Bridgeport diocese: Call off the lawyers

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles ) | Nov 03, 2009

Could I make a request to the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut?

Please, please: call off the lawyers.

This week the US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from the Bridgeport diocese on a state court's ruling that called for the public release of documents showing how diocesan officials handled complaints about sexual abuse by clerics in the past.

The Supreme Court's announcement was not a surprise-- not, at least, to anyone outside the Bridgeport chancery-- since in August, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg had declined a request from the diocese for an emergency stay on the Connecticut court's ruling. Ordinarily a Supreme Court justice will issue a stay only if it seems likely that the full court will take up the case. So when Justice Ginsberg refused to grant a stay, she was signaling that, in her judgment, the Supreme Court would not hear the Bridgeport appeal. But the Bridgeport diocese didn't take that hint.

Instead the diocese asked another Supreme Court member, Justice Antonin Scalia, to review the case and issue an emergency stay. Justice Scalia, too, declined-- showing that he, too, did not think it likely that the full court would take the case. The Bridgeport diocese did not take that hint, either.

Now that the full court has confirmed the judgment of Justices Ginsberg and Scalia, the Bridgeport diocese has run out of options. There are no further avenues of appeal. The case is settled. The documents will be released.

Or so it would seem. But the Bridgeport diocese has fought this case so doggedly, for so long, that a skeptic might wonder whether the issue will ever be decided. The diocese has been fighting against disclosure of its internal records since 2002, when four newspapers asked a Connecticut court to make them public. That court supported the newspapers' claim, against the vigorous protests of the Bridgeport diocese. The diocese brought the case to the Connecticut Supreme Court, and lost. Months passed, and the wrangling continued, and the diocese brought the case to the Connecticut Supreme Court again, on different grounds. Again the ruling went against the diocese.

Do you see a pattern here? Of course you do; everyone does. The Bridgeport diocese has not been able to find a court-- local, state, or federal-- that will accept its argument that disclosure of these internal documents will constitute a violation of religious freedom. At this point it's time to concede gracefully. The diocese has two options: accept the judgment of the courts, or resist a legal order and face the consequences.

Unfortunately there is no evidence that diocesan officials realize they have lost their legal case. Reacting to the news that the Supreme Court will not hear an appeal, diocesan spokesman Joseph McAleer rightly pointed out that the Supreme Court was not ruling against the diocese, but simply declining to hear the case. In that sense, the Supreme Court has not made any decision-- except, in this case, the decision not to decide. But having made that legitimate point, McAleer went further: "The court reviews only about 80 cases out of more than 10,000 cases presented, and regularly reminds the public that it must decline to review many cases that were wrongly decided by the lower courts. Unfortunately, ours was one of those cases." That statement conveys the impression that the Supreme Court has somehow acknowledged the justice of the case brought by the Bridgeport diocese, but declined to pursue the matter. That is not, by any stretch of the imagination, what the Supreme Court announced.

Yes, it is true-- Supreme Court justices will readily acknowledge it-- that the nation's highest court has limited resources, and cannot hear every legal appeal. So it is true-- and justices will acknowledge this, too-- that some promising appeals never receive a proper hearing at the Supreme Court. But if the justices see a clear violation of constitutional principles, they take the case. If they see a conflict between rulings issued by lower courts, they take the case. In the Bridgeport case, the justices did not see a clear violation of constitutional principle, and they did not see a conflict between rulings in lower courts.

For a decade now, dioceses have fought a grueling war of attrition in the American courts, trying to prevent disclosure of documents related to sex-abuse cases. Time after time after weary time, the courts have ruled that internal chancery memos and notes in personnel files do not qualify for the privileges of the confessional seal, and their disclosure does not constitute a violation of religious freedom. The pattern of judicial rulings was becoming clear even before the first review of the Bridgeport case. Now it is unmistakable.

What has the Bridgeport diocese accomplished, by fighting this hopeless battle for 7 long years? There is an astronomical legal bill to pay, no doubt-- a cost that can be tacked on to the costs of settlements with sex-abuse victims. Maybe a few more parishes will be closed, to settle the lawyers' fees. And since the case has been so closely watched, by so many reporters, for so long, we can be quite sure that when the diocesan documents are finally released, they will be subject to much more careful scrutiny, and much wider publicity, than they might have been if they had been released quietly in 2002-- at a time when the daily headlines were already full of stories about clerical misconduct.

When the 12,600 pages of Bridgeport diocesan documents are finally made public, what can we expect? In theory, we don't know. We know that the documents show how diocesan officials handled sex-abuse complaints in past years. We know that the diocesan officials involved include one very prominent former Bishop of Bridgeport, Cardinal Edward Egan, who went on to become Archbishop of New York before retiring early this year. But we don't know whether the documents show those Church officials in a good or bad light-- whether they will reflect credit on the hierarchy, or aggravate the scandal.

That is, we don't know in theory. But during the last decade, in every single case when a Catholic diocese fought against the release of documents, the documents that were eventually made public were gravely damaging to the credibility of the Church hierarchy. There's no reason to expect anything different in the Bridgeport case. There's every reason to believe that the Church in Connecticut and New York is facing a new season of scandal. Brace yourself; be ready for the worst.

But for heaven's sake, recognize that this legal fight is over. The result may be damaging, but it can no longer be postponed. Call off the lawyers.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: mgaspari - Nov. 08, 2009 1:04 PM ET USA

    "But most of all, because they offend Thee, my God..." I think it's time for any and all church officials involved in this particular chapter of the sex-abuse scandal to take their punishment like men... moreover, like men of God.

  • Posted by: tomassotucson8401 - Nov. 04, 2009 10:57 AM ET USA

    It's obvious, when the documents have been made public, the domino effect will certainly take place throughout the country. That is why, nothing but a lightning bolt from heaven, will get the bridgeport diocese to reveal them. I think I just heard the sound of thunder coming from heaven.

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