Leaders of Twin Cities parishes identified in clergy sex abuse claims will be allowed to view the confidential abuse claims made by the alleged victims, a federal bankruptcy court judge ruled Thursday.
Attorneys for parishes had argued that key parish leaders needed access to claims involving their churches in order to provide information to their insurance companies and to make informed financial decisions.
However, the more than 400 individuals who filed child abuse claims against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis had been guaranteed strict confidentiality, argued victims' lawyers, who said that many still attend the church where the abuse occurred and that they could be identified.
Bankruptcy Judge Robert Kressel agreed — with some reservations — with the parishes. The question for the court, he said, was: "How do we balance the needs of the parishes … and the privacy of claimants?"
Lawyers, now the main group authorized to view the claims, have private offices where documents can be kept securely, he said. Church leaders often do not.
"It feels different to me," said Kressel.
Mary Jo Jensen-Carter, an attorney representing more than 100 parishes, argued that church finance councils are accustomed to dealing with confidential information and that they can be trusted.
"This is unlike any type of private information they've ever received," Kressel said.
The hearing is the latest development in the bankruptcy process of the archdiocese, which filed for bankruptcy in January following a wave of clergy abuse claims and a new state law allowing older cases to move forward in court.
Under the motion approved Thursday, several leaders at parishes will be authorized to review a sex abuse claim against a priest or a former priest at their church, as well as any attachments. They are the pastor, two trustees on the parish board of directors, the chairman of the finance council, the business administrator and an attorney serving as counsel to the parish.
All must sign confidentiality agreements not to disclose the information in the claims.
About 50 parishes have been identified in the claims, according to the archdiocese.
Attorney Robert Kugler, representing the victims' committee in bankruptcy proceedings, argued that the motion would dramatically increase the number of people viewing the "unusually detailed and intensely personal proofs of claims."
Many abuse victims still have family members who attend the church where the abuse occurred, he said, and people on parish boards could well have social connections or interactions with them. That's particularly true in small churches outside the metro area.
"Such interactions greatly increase the risk of even an inadvertent disclosure of the abuse survivors' identities and other confidential information," Kugler wrote in his objection.
He asked the court to authorize read-only access to the claims so they couldn't be printed, saved or forwarded.
Attorney Dennis O'Brien, representing parishes, said such an arrangement was not practical, as parish leaders needed ready access to the information for their decisionmaking.