Monday, May 2, 2005
Maine Supreme Judicial Court Orders Release of Investigative Records in Alleged Cases of Sex Abuse by Catholic Priests
In a decision court watchers have anticipated for eleven months, the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine has ordered the release of records pertaining to "allegations of sexual abuse by eighteen deceased Roman Catholic priests" held by the Maine Attorney General, some dating back decades. The Court affirmed a lower court's judgment "to the extent that it ordered the disclosure of the records, but conclud[ed] that the court should have also ordered the records redacted so as to eliminate the names and other identifying information of the living persons who are cited in the records. We therefore vacate the judgment and remand for further proceedings so that the records will be subject to redaction before their disclosure." Blethen Maine newspapers, which publishes several papers in the state, had sought the release of the records under the state's Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) statute from the Attorney General beginning in 2002. The AG had refused, "based on his conclusion that `disclosure of the investigative records relating to the deceased priests would `constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy' within the meaning of 16 M.R.S.A. [section] 614 [(Supp. 2004)] of the Criminal History Record Information Act.'"
The state had argued that release of the records might constitute an invasion of privacy into the lives of those named, including living victims and witnesses. The Court recognized the heightened privacy interests of these individuals and found that based on the appropriate balancing test the privacy interests of the dead could be overcome by public policy concerns but those of the living could not. "The Superior Court concluded, in effect, that any residual personal privacy rights that could be claimed by those named in the documents sought by Blethen are nominal and `must bend to the public interest.' The court declined to redact the names of living persons and other identifying information because of `how much information would have be taken out and the extent to which this information is likely already known, at least at a local level.' We have concluded that although the privacy rights of the deceased priests and their families are, at most, minimal, the residual personal privacy rights of the living individuals named in the records persist, albeit tempered by the manner in which the information was reported to public and church officials....Accordingly, we conclude that the public interest in the disclosure of the records is substantial and the public interest supporting disclosure can be realized even with the redaction of all identifying information regarding the persons identified in the records other than the deceased priests. On balance, the identified public interest exceeds the privacy interests associated with the records once they are redacted. We therefore affirm the court's determination that the records requested by Blethen should be disclosed...." The decision was 4-3.
Read the entire opinion here.