Inspection of Church Records

Can a church avoid the inspection of its records by placing them in a “secret archive”?

Can a church avoid inspection of its records in a civil lawsuit by placing them in a location that it designates as a "secret archive"?

No, concluded a Pennsylvania appeals court. A Catholic priest, and his bishop, church, and diocese, were sued on account of the alleged sexual molestation of a minor child by the priest. The victim claimed that the bishop, church, and diocese were legally responsible since they "negligently hired or retained" the priest and assigned him to a church "when they knew or should have known of his pedophilic tendencies."

In preparation for trial, the victim's attorney sought to inspect documents in the possession of the diocese pertaining to the sexual misconduct of priests with male children for the years 1972 through 1987. The victim's attorney also sought to inspect any records pertaining to the priest who allegedly molested him. The diocese refused to disclose any of these documents. It asserted that they were all contained in a secret archive file that was not subject to inspection.

This position was based on Canon 489 of the law of the Roman Catholic Church which states: "There is to be a secret archive … or at least a safe or file in the ordinary archive, completely closed and locked and which cannot be removed from the place" for those documents that are to be "kept and protected most securely." Canon 490 states further that "only the bishop" of the diocese may possess the key to the secret archive and that "documents are not to be removed from the secret archive or safe."

A trial court ordered the diocese to produce for inspection the documents requested by the victim's attorney. The diocese immediately appealed this order, claiming that it violated the first amendment's guaranty of religious freedom. A state appeals court agreed with the trial court, and ordered the diocese to turn over the requested information.

The court began its opinion by observing that a party to a lawsuit has the legal right to "discover" or inspect any document in the possession of another party, so long as the document is relevant to the lawsuit and not privileged. The court concluded that the requested information in this case was clearly relevant to the lawsuit, and not privileged. It acknowledged that Pennsylvania law contains a "priest-penitent privilege," which protects clergy from disclosing in court any confidential communications made to them while acting in their role as a confessor or counselor.

However, the court insisted that "this privilege protects priest-penitent communications; it does not protect information regarding the manner in which a religious institution conducts its affairs or information acquired by a church as a result of independent investigations not involving confidential communications between priest and penitent."

Accordingly, the priest-penitent privilege ordinarily would not apply to a priest's personnel file or records maintained by a diocese regarding incidents of sexual molestation by priests, since this kind of information normally is not obtained in the course of confidential communications with clergy.

The court observed: "Insofar as the canons of the Church are in conflict with the law of the land, the canons must yield. Here, it is the Pennsylvania rules of discovery which are controlling. Merely because canon 489 is controlling in the internal operations of the affairs of the Church does not mean that it permits evidence pertaining to sexual molestation of children by priests to be secreted and shielded from discovery which is otherwise proper."

The court quoted with approval from an earlier decision of the United States Supreme Court: "Conscientious scruples have not, in the course of the long struggle for religious toleration, relieved the individual from obedience to a general law not aimed at the promotion or restriction of religious beliefs. The mere possession of religious convictions which contradict the relevant concerns of a political society does not relieve the citizen from the discharge of political responsibilities."

The court concluded: "We hold … that where the only action required of a religious institution is the disclosure of relevant, non-privileged documents to an adversary in civil litigation, such action, without more, poses no threat of governmental interference with the free exercise of religion. In [this] case there is not one iota of evidence that court ordered discovery will 'chill' the rights of [the church and diocese] in the conduct of their religious affairs or inhibit their parishioners from engaging freely in the practice of their religious beliefs and activities …. [T]he relevant inquiry is not whether the church gives a file a particular name, but whether disclosure of the information requested from that file interferes with the exercise of religious freedom." Hutchison v. Luddy, 606 A.2d 905 (Pa. Super. 1992).

See Also: Inspection

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