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Judge asked to review church’s proposed ‘gag order’

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

A Santa Fe judge has been asked to take up the question of how much information the Roman Catholic Church can conceal in clerical sex abuse cases.

Attorneys representing seven New Mexico men who allege they were sexually abused as boys by a Las Vegas priest asked a judge on Friday to reject a proposed order that would allow the Archdiocese of Santa Fe to seal a wide variety of records filed in the lawsuit.

In their response, attorneys for the alleged victims called the proposed order “overbroad, complex and limiting” and “a near complete gag order” unnecessary for ensuring a fair trial.

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“Even cases involving sensitive trade secrets are not typically accompanied by such restrictive protective orders” as the one sought by the archdiocese, the response said.

The archdiocese’s attorneys earlier this month asked state District Judge Sarah Singleton of Santa Fe to impose a confidentiality and protective order that would bar attorneys in the case from disclosing records the archdiocese deems confidential.

The proposed order is virtually identical to one handed down in 2014 by 2nd Judicial District Judge Alan Malott of Albuquerque that bars public disclosure of a wide variety of records, including priests’ personnel files, depositions and many of the motions filed in more than 50 lawsuits filed by Albuquerque attorney Brad Hall.

Cammie Nichols, an Albuquerque attorney representing the seven alleged victims, said the proposed order would interfere with her ability to investigate on behalf of her clients.

“I don’t think that level of secrecy is necessary to have a fair trial,” Nichols said. “It’s much too limiting in allowing attorneys to do part of their job, which is investigation.”

Nichols also contends the proposed order limits the free speech rights of her clients.

Over a period of decades, “dozens of New Mexico priests have been publicly outed as sexual abusers of children,” the response said. “This issue, while now widely known to the public at large, remains of clear public importance because it is centered in the special protections deserved by the children of New Mexico,” it said.

The Archdiocese of Santa Fe said in a written statement Friday that the proposed order is intended to protect the identities of all parties, including alleged victims.

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“The CPO helps assure that the interests of all parties are protected in a fair and impartial manner as the adjudication of these claims are made based upon evidence admitted in the courtroom,” the statement said. “The Archdiocese believes that the 2nd Judicial District 2014 CPO has not prevented or hindered plaintiffs in those cases from conducting pre-trial discovery nor has compliance with the CPO proven to be onerous or unfair to the parties in those cases.”

Nichols said that existing law protects the identities of sexual abuse victims. Her clients’ identities could be protected by redacting names from records without a judge’s order, she said.

Robert Warburton and Sara Sanchez, Albuquerque attorneys representing the archdiocese, filed a motion April 6 asking Singleton to impose the confidentiality and protective order in the Santa Fe lawsuit.

The attorneys contend that the confidentiality order is needed to ensure an impartial trial “based on evidence presented in the courtroom, as opposed to pretrial publicity fueled by selective leaking of information.”

Attorneys for the alleged victims responded that whether or not the order is approved, “the jury pool will undoubtedly have been exposed to the devastating stories of priest abuse pervasive in this state, this country, and worldwide.”

The Archdiocese of Santa Fe vets and performs background checks for all clergy and lay people who work with children, the archdiocese said in its written statement. It also has a safe environment coordinator and an independent board to ensure child safety policies are followed, it said.

“The Archdiocese of Santa Fe continues to be vigilant regarding sexual misconduct and stands firm on its zero tolerance policy,” the statement said. “We pray for all who have been victims of the sad reality of sexual abuse.”

The Santa Fe lawsuit alleges that Monsignor Hubert Lomme, former-pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows parish in Las Vegas, sexually abused seven pre-teen boys at the church from 1958 to 1964. Lomme died in 1986 at age 79.

The suit was filed in December on behalf of unidentified men ages 62 to 66. Six of the men live in San Miguel County and one in Socorro County. It is the first clerical abuse lawsuit filed in district court in Santa Fe since 2013, and the first filed by Nichols and other attorneys with Rothstein Donatelli LLC of Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

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