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Editorial: Gallup Diocese should unseal abuse records

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It was a dirty secret for years. Now the extent of sexual abuses by some priests in the Diocese of Gallup is being hidden behind legal maneuvering in bankruptcy court.

Thirteen lawsuits have been filed in Arizona Superior Court since August 2010 alleging sexual abuse by six priests in the diocese from the 1950s to the 1980s.

In reaction to the lawsuits and in expectation of more to come, the diocese has filed for Chapter 11 reorganization bankruptcy protection. In addition to the pending lawsuits, three lawsuits and at least a dozen complaints have been settled – in secret. That makes determining the scope of the abuse difficult.

The diocese’s attorney says she does not know how many cases the diocese has settled, when the settlements were made, or how much the diocese has paid. Bankruptcy court records list 121 “confidential claimants” who have filed abuse claims against the diocese.

Victims’ attorneys say the bankruptcy filing is a way to hide the scope of the abuse. They say it stops lawsuits from being filed and depositions from being taken, halts the discovery process attorneys use to find information, postpones lawsuits in progress and seals the case from the public. In a Sunday Journal story by staff writer Olivier Uyttebrouck, an attorney who has 18 claimants who have not filed lawsuits yet says the filing makes it unlikely lawsuits can be filed after bankruptcy proceedings are over.

The attorney who filed the 13 pending lawsuits says diocese officials “don’t want people to know what was said” in depositions already taken for the cases.

That would include testimony under oath this September by Bishop James Wall and an unnamed longtime priest in the diocese. The depositions were sealed, and a hearing to consider opening them was stopped by the bankruptcy filing.

The diocese claims bankruptcy is an equitable way to compensate all the victims and is not being done to keep information secret. Its attorney says the diocese is very poor and “simply does not have the resources outside the context of the Chapter 11 to deal with the claims on a one-by-one basis.”

If the diocese is taking the bankruptcy route for the right reasons – to make restitution and bring closure to the greatest number of victims and their families – then it should not have a problem unsealing the depositions and other information.

For the diocese to convince not only the victims but also the greater community that has a public interest in knowing how many children were abused at the hands of men they trusted, it must take that action as a way of restoring faith in the church.

As it stands now, the diocese should not expect to be given the benefit of the doubt.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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