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Judge orders open hearing on Saints' emails with church

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Key Points
  • News outlets and the public will be able to attend a hearing next week on the confidentiality of emails between Roman Catholic officials and the NFL's New Orleans Saints concerning clergy sex-abuse scandals.
  • A state judge in New Orleans ruled Thursday that the Feb. 20 hearing will be open, although she cautioned attorneys that they must not disclose the contents of the emails at that hearing.
  • The local affiliate of the advocacy group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests praised the ruling as "a civil rights win for survivors."
Members of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, including John Gianoli, left, Richard Windmann, left, Kevin Bourgeois, John Anderson, hold signs during a conference in front of the New Orleans Saints training facility in Metairie, La., Wednesday Jan. 29, 2020.
Matthew Hinton | AP

News outlets and the public will be able to attend a hearing next week on the confidentiality of emails between Roman Catholic officials and the NFL's New Orleans Saints concerning clergy sex-abuse scandals.

A state judge in New Orleans ruled Thursday that the Feb. 20 hearing will be open, although she cautioned attorneys that they must not disclose the contents of the emails at that hearing.

As The Associated Press reported last month, victims' lawyers allege that hundreds of Saints emails show team executives did behind-the-scenes public relations damage control amid the Archdiocese of New Orleans' clergy abuse crisis.

The team has gone to court to keep the emails from being made public, saying court rules would ordinarily keep them under seal and that the plaintiffs' lawyers want them released "for publicity purposes."

A court-appointed special master is to determine whether they may be released and will preside over next week's hearing.

The AP has been allowed to intervene in the effort to get the emails released and lawyers for the news cooperative are being allowed to participate in arguments for release of the emails. Until the judge ruled Thursday, the Feb. 20 hearing before the special master was to be closed to the public.

The local affiliate of advocacy group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests praised the ruling as "a civil rights win for survivors."

Kevin Bourgeois, SNAP's New Orleans leader said in a statement that, "throughout this process, Saints staff has claimed that they had no input in crafting the incomplete and under-counted list of abusive clergy released by the Archdiocese of New Orleans."

"We hope that the special master will put that claim to the test by releasing these emails and letting the public see the truth of the matter," he said. "We look forward to next week's hearing and are hopeful that transparency will win once again."

The owners of The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate, WVUE-TV, WWL-TV, and WDSU-TV filed a motion for access to the hearing. A lawyer for the local news outlets said the AP should not be the only media outlet present at the hearing.

"All the public has a right to it," judge Ellen Hazeur said, ruling from the bench after a brief hearing.

Lawyers for the Saints and the Archdiocese of New Orleans argued that special master hearings are routinely closed. But Hazeur said nothing in her order appointing a special master required a closed hearing.

The Saints, whose devoutly Catholic owner Gayle Benson is close friends with the local archbishop, have disputed as "outrageous" any suggestion that the team helped cover up crimes. They have accused plaintiffs' attorneys of mischaracterizing what is in the emails.

Benson said in a news release Monday that the NFL team played no role in determining which priests would be named in the list of "credibly accused" clergy, published by the archdiocese.

Attorneys for about two dozen men suing the church allege in court filings that the confidential emails show executives joined in the church's "pattern and practice of concealing its crimes." The attorneys contend that included taking an active role in helping to shape the archdiocese's list of 57 credibly accused clergy, a roster an AP analysis found was undercounted by at least 20 names.

—CNBC's Sunny Kim contributed to this report.