Litigation against the Archdiocese of New Orleans took an unusual turn last month when a plaintiff revealed that the New Orleans Saints had been offering advice to the Catholic Church as it prepared to release a list of clergy who had been plausibly accused of abuse.
During the discovery process in one abuse case pending in New Orleans Civil District Court, lawyers for plaintiffs unearthed 276 emails that they say detail the New Orleans Saints’ involvement in that case.
Gayle Benson says her staff simply advised the church to be open and truthful, but the plaintiffs say the emails will show that the team was more deeply involved in crafting the list. The plaintiffs and the Catholic Church, in addition to the Saints, are currently battling it out in court over what emails produced in discovery will be designated “confidential,” that is, what emails the public might eventually be able to see if and when they are filed into the public record.
Into the maelstrom marched The Associated Press, a consortium representing news organizations. The AP asked Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Ellen Hazeur if it could participate in the argument over whether these emails were confidential or not. The Times-Picayune and The Advocate are members of The Associated Press.
While the judge ordered the AP could participate in the hearing about the confidentiality of the emails, and referred the question to a special master, former Judge Carolyn Gill-Jefferson, the special master announced that her hearing on the issue would be closed to the press.
None of the parties in the cases asked for a secret hearing.
The church and the team are important institutions in our community. But the Saints are not a defendant in the various suits against the church, so football fans were probably surprised to find the team involved in a matter that has little to do with touchdowns or tackling.
Whether the public has a right to see the emails, or see some of them, will be decided by the judge, but no matter what the special master and the court ultimately determine, Hazeur should be sure that the court’s decision in the matter is reached openly.
For that reason, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate and New Orleans’ three leading TV stations — WWL, WVUE and WDSU — are asking Hazeur to order that the Feb. 20 hearing be open to the public. The judge will hear the appeal from the news organizations Thursday.
Courts are called on to resolve our community’s thorniest and most contentious disputes. When they do so in secret — and needlessly so — they undermine their authority and the voters’ confidence.