The diocese is asking victims to aid in blocking the release of names of accused priests.

PORTLAND (AP) – The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland is asking alleged victims to help fight the public release of information concerning sexual abuse in the church.

In a Nov. 10 form letter, Sister Rita-Mae Bissonette, co-chancellor of the diocese, suggested that Attorney General Steven Rowe be encouraged to appeal a court order requiring the release of files related to abuse allegations.

The order called for Rowe to release the names of the now deceased priests accused of sexual abuse and the people who accused them. Rowe filed an appeal with the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Nov. 12.

Bissonette said she was “outraged” by the court order and urged victims to either contact the diocese or the attorney general to express their feelings “about this betrayal of your confidence.”

“We at the diocese assured you that it was not our intention to make your accusation known to the public,” Bissonette wrote.

Bissonette’s letter has prompted some criticism.

“In my mind, the church is the abuser here, and for the diocese to contact the victims is totally inappropriate,” said Paul Kendrick, co-founder of the Maine chapter of Voice of the Faithful, a church reform group. “For the same institution that covered up these crimes to ask for help keeping these secrets sounds almost like witness tampering.”

The diocese said the letter was purely informational and intended to keep victims abreast of the latest developments in a case that could affect them.

“I don’t think this was a pressure letter,” said Sue Bernard, spokeswoman of the diocese. “It just said that if you want to have something to say, here’s who to say it to. We want to make sure that everyone knows what’s going on.”

The assistant attorney general who filed the appeal said the effort was irrelevant to Rowe’s decision. “We didn’t need to hear from any victims to know we had objections…,” said Leanne Robbin. “We heard from some, but we had already decided to appeal.”

In May 2002, the diocese voluntarily turned over records of abuse allegations against 51 priests and other clergy, including 18 who were dead.

Blethen Maine Newspapers, owner of the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal in Augusta and Morning Sentinel in Waterville, filed a claim under the state’s Freedom of Access law, requesting files relating to the dead priests since they could not be charged.

Last month, Superior Court Justice Kirk Studstrup issued a ruling that ordered Rowe to release the documents. In what has become the most controversial part of the ruling, Studstrup said that the names of alleged victims and witnesses should not be edited out from the files before their release.

“Any privacy rights the alleged victims, witnesses and alleged abusers originally had has been eroded by time, life and the manner in which the information came to the attorney general,” Studstrup wrote.

AP-ES-11-22-03 1220EST

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