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Lawyer seeks church's electronic data on priests

  • Article by: AMY FORLITI
  • Associated Press
  • June 10, 2014 - 5:20 PM

MINNEAPOLIS — Attorneys for victims of alleged sexual abuse by clergy are asking a judge in St. Paul to order the archdiocese to turn over its electronic data on accused priests — such as emails, texts and data on hard drives — so they can get an even deeper look at what church leaders knew and when.

If the judge agrees, attorney Jeff Anderson said, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis will be required to turn over more of its internal communications than ever before.

"I think it really will give us a very deep insight into the inner workings (of the church) and the conscious choices being made by the top officials," he said.

The archdiocese did not immediately answer questions sent via email. Ramsey County District Court Judge John Van de North will hold a hearing on Anderson's request later this month.

Anderson said he and his colleagues have already received roughly 70,000 pages in documents from church officials as part of a case in which they claim the archdiocese and the Diocese of Winona created a public nuisance and risked public safety by keeping the names of accused priests secret.

But the request for electronic data goes even deeper, and seeks documents in their "native form," which will allow attorneys to see when documents may have been produced or updated. Such computer-generated information, or metadata, is not on paper documents, according to an affidavit by computer forensic expert Mark Lanterman, who was hired by Anderson to examine the digital data.

In his June 5 affidavit, Lanterman is proposing a full examination of digital media, which would allow a forensic expert to make digital copies of entire hard drives in order to analyze and recover data that may have been deleted.

"It is necessary to image and analyze hard drives from any computer which may have accessed relevant data as well as any external USB devices, cellular phones, servers and other electronic media on which the relevant data might be stored," Lanterman wrote.

Mitchell Garabedian, an attorney who represented victims in the original clergy abuse cases in Boston, said documents are critical in cases like this.

"One email could've been sent from a chancellor, for instance, to 30 priests and a supervisor about a pedophile priest," he said. "It's very important to obtain those electronic filings to determine what those electronic files say and who was put on notice."

Such data may shed light on what St. Paul church officials knew in the case of the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, for example, who pleaded guilty in 2012 to molesting two brothers. In January, prosecutors declined to charge church officials for the way they handled the case, saying there was not enough evidence to prove that anyone failed to immediately report allegations of abuse.

The archdiocese has claimed it acted appropriately in the Wehmeyer case, and that an internal document that raises questions about the timing of the report to police has an incorrect date on it.

Anderson said that while he has sought electronic data before, in cases against individual priests, this time his request is broader in scope, because of the nature of the public nuisance case.

"If you are trying to determine whether an organization has actually created a public nuisance, you really do need to determine what they knew and how they were acting," said Terry McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org. "And if the actors are being reticent, you are going to need to depend on the documents."

© 2014 Star Tribune