WBTV, media coalition file petitions to access sealed records in Catholic abuse lawsuit

New developments in Catholic abuse case

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - WBTV and a coalition of other Charlotte media outlets have filed two petitions in court to access sealed records filed as part of two civil lawsuits against the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte regarding priest sexual abuse.

The two cases were first filed in 2011 and stretched for years before final orders were entered in both cases in 2015, both in favor of the diocese.

Documents were filed under seal in both cases, the files of which sit in two boxes at the Mecklenburg County Clerk of Court’s Office.

One of the two cases includes two thick envelopes of sealed material, for which there is not a comparable amount of redacted documents in the public file.

WBTV reporters have been unable to locate redacted versions of the same sealed documents during multiple reviews of the public court file.

WBTV joined other Charlotte-area media outlets--WSOC, WCNC and The Charlotte Observer--in petitioning the court to unseal the records.

“I think each of these news organizations has independently determined that they have reason to believe that there is information in these sealed documents that would be of significant public interest,” attorney Jon Buchan, who is representing the media coalition, said.

“For decades, the United States Supreme Court, our North Carolina appellate courts have held that in except for the most extraordinary circumstances court records should be public. That’s why the public will have confidence in how our courts operate. Our courts have held that time and again,” Buchan continued. “So anytime a court seals records, they have to meet a very high standard to demonstrate that it’s necessary – that there’s a compelling reason for it. In that, if they’ve sealed anything, it’s the least possible sealing to protect whatever interest is necessary. In this case, for example, the news organizations are not seeking the names of these John Doe plaintiffs. They’re not seeking information about their medical records – they’re very clear about that.”

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the diocese said the church did not file documents under seal in order to conceal information but, instead, to protect the identities of the accusers who came forward with allegations of sexual abuse.

“The diocese supports the media’s request to unseal documents in the civil suits – if that is the desire of the plaintiffs involved,” church spokeswoman Patricia Guilfoyle said. “In fact, the only information that the Diocese filed under seal in these cases is information that would reveal the plaintiffs’ identities, a step the diocese took to honor the plaintiffs’ request at the time. Respecting the wishes of plaintiffs in this case and promoting healing for all victims of abuse remain our highest priorities.”

The new legal action comes months after the diocese announced it would release a full list of credibly accused clergy who have worked in the diocese by the end of the year.

That announcement came after heightened media scrutiny from each of the media coalition members, who have each provided extensive coverage of the local church’s handling of priest sexual abuse over the past year.

It has not yet been determined how or when a judge will consider the petitions of the media coalition.

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