Oakland Diocese seeks to seal names of alleged predator priests in bankruptcy case

Victim advocates blasted the move, accusing the diocese of dishonoring its transparency pledge

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Attorneys representing the Diocese of Oakland in its ongoing bankruptcy case are seeking to seal the names of priests and other church employees accused of sexually abusing children or aiding in alleged cover ups.

The Diocese’s attorneys declined an interview request from NBC Bay Area at a hearing Tuesday, but argued in a recent motion that confidentiality will protect accused clergy against “the disclosure of a ‘scandalous’ and deeply personal matter in publicly filed court documents.”

They added that confidentiality was necessary to “protect the privacy and to prevent identity theft and harassment of those individuals," both alleged victims and accused clergy alike.

Plaintiff’s attorneys and victim advocates blasted the move and questioned the diocese’s commitment to transparency in the widening sex abuse scandal.

“What we see is not an endeavor to shed light on that cancerous past,” said Brent Weisenberg, an attorney representing plaintiffs and other creditors in the Oakland bankruptcy case. “We’re here with a request that on the first day of the case, all these names remain secret.”

Judge William J. Lafferty did not rule on the motion during Tuesday's hearing, but instead suggested attorneys for the diocese file a new motion specifying exactly which names should be kept under seal and why.

The Diocese of Oakland currently faces more than 300 child sexual abuse lawsuits stemming from AB 218, a 2019 state law that opened a three-year window for such cases to proceed in court despite the statute of limitations. Attorneys for the plaintiffs said the figure could climb past 400 once every case was tallied.

In 2019, the Diocese of Oakland released a list of more than 60 priests who have been “credibly accused” of sexually abusing children. Attorneys for the diocese signaled Tuesday their confidentiality motion would not apply to the priests on that list.

However, as NBC Bay Area first reported, there are hundreds of Northern California priests who now face abuse allegations for the first time, including many from the Oakland diocese, and it’s currently unclear how those names will be treated. None of those newly accused priests have been added to the Diocese of Oakland’s public list of suspected abusers, despite some being named in multiple recent lawsuits.

Publicly available documents filed in state civil court have already named many such priests, including Oakland’s now-deceased founding bishop, Bishop Floyd Begin, and Weisenberg argued the court can’t seal what’s already hit the public domain.

An attorney for the diocese said in court they needed more time to review those names before making a determination on their confidentiality request.

Outside the courthouse, advocates from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), held a small demonstration. They accused Oakland Bishop Michael Barber of using the bankruptcy process to shield the identities of alleged abusers from public disclosure.

“What I would like to ask you Bishop Michael Barber,” former Oakland priest Tim Stier said. “Is if you’re publicly committed to transparency and accountability on child abuse issues, I think you should tell your lawyers that because they seem to be taking a different tact.”

SNAP urged the Diocese to publish the names of all priests accused in recently filed lawsuits and reiterated calls for California Attorney General Rob Bonta to publish findings from his office’s ongoing probe into abuse within the Catholic church.

A spokesperson for the Diocese of Oakland did not respond to NBC Bay Area's request for comment Tuesday.

The diocese’s new confidentiality motion is due next month.

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