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VOL. 124 | NO. 65 | Friday, April 3, 2009

Judge to Weigh Priest Abuse Revelations

By Bill Dries

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The Contenders: The players in Thursday’s Circuit Court hearing over The Daily News motion for access to court records in a child sexual abuse case included, from left, Catholic Diocese of Memphis spokesman the Rev. John Geaney; Richard Hollow, attorney for The Commercial Appeal; Gary K. Smith, attorney for the plaintiff in the John Doe lawsuit; and Paul Billings, attorney for The Daily News. -- PHOTOS BY REBEKAH HEARN

Circuit Court Judge Charles McPherson will determine what details should be made public in court records from a civil lawsuit involving the sexual abuse of a teenager by a Memphis priest.

McPherson ruled Thursday on a motion by The Daily News and The Commercial Appeal seeking to open court records as well as depositions taken in the case involving Father Juan Carlos Duran.

“As they say at the newspapers, I’m going to take a blue pencil to it,” McPherson told attorneys in the case.

The newspapers filed the motion after a $2 million settlement was announced earlier this year in a John Doe civil lawsuit filed in 2004 against the Catholic Diocese of Memphis and the Dominican religious order, of which Duran was a member.

The lawsuit alleged that the diocese and the Dominicans either knew or should have known Duran was a danger to children. John Doe was 14 years old when Duran repeatedly sexually abused him. The boy filed the lawsuit in 2004 when he turned 18 years old.

The settlement was made final Thursday before McPherson took up the matter of opening records in the case.

Not gone yet

Attorneys for the diocese and the Dominicans argued that sealing the records and maintaining a protective order was part of the settlement reached with the plaintiff.

But attorney Gary K. Smith, who represents John Doe, refuted that.

“I filed some information so that it could be made public,” he told McPherson. “There were no negotiations and no agreement on that, otherwise there wouldn’t have been a settlement. This never came up. … They were expecting me to go away.”

Attorney Richard Hollow, representing The Commercial Appeal, argued it was unconstitutional to withhold the court records from some kind of public release – even with a redaction of the records. He also told McPherson it was in the public interest to open records and depositions that shed light on how the diocese and the Dominicans dealt with Duran’s abuse of the boy, as well as other complaints of child sexual abuse against other priests in Memphis.

“It’s the crucible of public opinion,” Hollow said. “Somewhere, may it please the court, this issue has to receive a public airing. The public has in many segments, I’m sure, an issue of confidence with a revered religious institution. How can that revered religious institution put that issue to rest if they continue to stick them behind a smoke screen, hide them behind a protective order or put them in a confidential settlement?”

‘Right to know’

But attorney Casey Shannon for the diocese told McPherson naming priests or leaving in details that would readily identify a priest accused in some cases 20 to 40 years ago wouldn’t serve the public interest.

“This not a dialogue,” he said in court. “It would be a monologue by the media in which (those accused) would not have any reasonable way to respond.”

McPherson said attorneys for the diocese and the Dominicans will have to show “good cause” why something should be redacted or censored from the records.

“What am I faced with that should not be revealed?” he said from the bench before ruling. “I still don’t know what it is that the diocese and Dominicans say should remain under seal.”

“It’s difficult for me to say, ‘OK, we’re going to open Pandora’s box,’” he continued. “I don’t want to do that. I want to give the press the right that they have. … Unless you can show me that particular names should not be revealed, I’m gong to be forced to open it to the press, which has a right to know.”

Attorneys for the diocese and the Dominicans will go through 19 filings and five depositions and make their case for what should be left out. Their list of redactions is due on McPherson’s desk by May 4. Attorneys for The Daily News and The Commercial Appeal will not be involved in reviewing any of the material that for now remains under seal of a protective order.

“The judge will take some period of time to determine whether he thinks it ought to be redacted,” said Paul Billings, attorney for The Daily News. “I think it’s probably what should have happened a long time ago. But in order to expedite litigation, the confidentiality protection order here is similar to what attorneys do in tons of cases. … There was never a fight about it here because they settled the case.

“But litigants don’t get to control what’s public. They only get to control what’s public when they can show that there’s a privacy interest or some other interest that needs to be protected.”

Diocesan spokesman Father John Geaney said the church remains concerned about victims as well as the accused priests.

“What the judge rules eventually, we’ll live with that and deal with that when it comes,” he said. “Sometimes the names that are being revealed are not from credible allegations. The diocese has worked very clearly to help victims, find out what happened to them and how to deal with that. … What happens oftentimes in these cases is that there are several people from whom an allegation is implied. Implied allegations destroy people’s reputations and there’s no need in having those reputations destroyed by that.”

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