Why dioceses should stop fighting disclosure: that legal strategy always fails

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Mar 19, 2014

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A judge has ordered a Catholic archdiocese to release documents pertaining to the handling of sex-abuse cases.

You already know that story, right? But wait; I’m talking about today’s headline story, not the story that appeared last month or the month before that or… virtually every month since early 2002. It’s all become a blur, hasn’t it? In case after case the archdiocese fights against public disclosure, loses the legal battle, and is forced to release the documents.

Frankly, I’m tired of writing up these news stories. By now I could do it in my sleep, working from a template, filling in the proper nouns for each new case. “Judge X ruled that the Diocese of Y had not made a convincing case that the release of personnel records would violate the religious-freedom protections of the First Amendment.” In today’s case, the Minnesota judge pointedly observed that archdiocesan lawyers had asserted a need for religious-freedom protection, but never made a plausible argument for that protection. Maybe the lawyers are getting tired of it all, too.

Time and again the same old story is played out, with results that are now painfully predictable. The archdiocese resists, and critics say that Church leaders have something to hide. The resistance eventually crumbles, the documents are released, and the critics have another opportunity to cite the misdeeds of the Catholic hierarchy. Whereupon the diocesan PR spokesman issues an improbable claim that the diocese was always anxious to cooperate with the court and ensure that all the facts were available.

Why do diocesan officials continue to follow the same failed strategy? In 2002 it was news that a Massachusetts court ordered the release of internal Church documents. But no longer. Isn’t it abundantly clear by now that the courts will not be sympathetic to pleas for confidentiality in these cases? What is the purpose of fighting a rear-guard action in the courts, when in all likelihood the end result will be the same: the documents will be released? The protracted legal battles serve only to roll up the costs and accentuate the negative publicity.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: schndj2254 - Mar. 22, 2014 8:57 AM ET USA

    Almost every time when the courts finally force the release of years of documents, what is discovered is a pattern of transferring priest, and other related efforts by the Episcopal hierarchy to spare the Church's embarrassment and rehabilitate the offenders. Understandable perhaps but not sufficient. Also, you can't help but wonder if some aren't more concerned about personal embarrassment that the perceived integrity of the Church; ie. Cardinal Mahoney in Los Angeles who continues to blog on