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Thursday, May 11, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Newspaper seeks details of abuse claims

The Associated Press

SPOKANE — A federal judge will decide whether a newspaper can see sex abuse claims against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane, which wants to block their release to avoid possible disclosure of unfounded allegations against priests.

U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Patricia Williams has scheduled a hearing Monday on The Spokesman-Review's request to look at versions of the claims with claimants' names deleted.

The newspaper has formally objected to a diocese motion to seal court records in the case. Copies of the claims already have been made available to attorneys and others working on the case.

There are about 175 individual claims against the diocese, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in December 2004 because of the sex abuse scandal.

A recent court filing in a related lawsuit said that more than a dozen abusers whose identities have not been made public are named in the claims that the newspaper seeks.

In earlier court filings, the diocese said it was seeking to seal copies of the claims in order to protect the identities of sexual abuse victims.

Shaun Cross, an attorney representing the diocese, said keeping the claims confidential is also a matter of fairness to priests because disclosure of unfounded allegations could be devastating to them.

The diocese has an internal review system to determine whether the allegations are unfounded, he said. Diocesan officials have said some of the claims filed in bankruptcy court involve priests in other states or dioceses, or are obviously unfounded on their face.

The newspaper's lawyers sought the hearing after lawyers for Bishop William Skylstad rejected the newspaper's request for access.

"This is a public safety issue," said Carla Savalli, senior editor for local news. "The public and parishioners deserve to know the names of priests who've been accused of abuse, particularly if they're still serving in churches and schools. The newspaper is seeking a balance between the sensitive issues facing victims and the public's right to be informed."

Skylstad himself is among those named. He has categorically denied claims of sexual abuse by a woman now living in Europe and has hired a personal lawyer and a private investigator.

The newspaper has asked the court to modify an earlier order governing the confidentiality of sex abuse claims in the case to allow reporters to see the claims, without victims' names.

The diocese contends the bankruptcy court has the ability to "protect a person with respect to scandalous or defamatory matter" and that it would be logistically difficult and a financial burden to comply with the newspaper's request.

The diocese has offered to settle the claims of 75 victims for $45.7 million. More than 100 other claims have been filed since as part of the bankruptcy case.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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