It’s the worst fear of any parent who sends their child to participate in sports or other youth-related activities – the teacher/coach/leader is an alleged pedophile. Parents in the North Shore Town of Rowley face that chilling reality, as it has been revealed that Curtis H. Bryant was accused in a 1990 lawsuit of being a child molester during a period when he worked at the Landmark School in Beverly, Massachusetts. For the past 20 years, records from the lawsuit were not available, as the judge who presided over the case had ordered the record sealed as a part of a settlement agreement between private parties. With no public record of the accusations, Bryant was apparently free to go about his life working with children.
This, of course, highlights significant public policy questions, including the propriety of confidentiality agreements and the sealing of Court documents which have historically been viewed as matters of public record. Such agreements or Court seals are particularly troubling when shielding an alleged — or proven — wrongdoer such that the public is deprived of the ability to take reasonable steps to avoid potential harm. As is often the case, only through the investigative work of journalists, such as those at the Boston Globe, has the record been unsealed after about 20 years. As reported by the Globe, both a Justice of the Massachusetts Superior court and an Associate Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts agreed that making the record public was a “matter of public concern.”
In sexual abuse, discrimination, or other salacious cases that our firm has handled, we have often encountered attempts by defendants to have records sealed. Understandably, families of the victims are often uncomfortable with such arrangements, and so are Massachusetts judges. The reason a defendant would want a record sealed is obvious – there will be no public record of allegations that could follow an alleged wrongdoer. But what about families, and other potential victims, living in the communities of the accused? How can a judge justify keeping families from knowing about accusations made against a person who may be around children?
Such agreements are even more troubling when it comes out years later, that after the confidentiality agreement or sealing of Court files, the wrongdoer continued to cause harm. This issue of recidivism is not limited, of course, to those who prey on children. One need not look far to find corporations or organizations that have, in the past, struggled with situations involving confidentiality agreements, sealed files and continuing harm whether it be due to defective products, or repeated and inappropriate conduct by employees or volunteers.
At bottom, the removal of such information from the public view, creates opportunities for further harm while decreasing incentives to make operational changes that will make the public safer. Accordingly, before such agreements are made, or orders entered, particularly compelling considerations should be required such that the private interest in secrecy, outweighs the public’s right to protect itself from preventable harm.
Absent such a situation, public court records should remain public.
At Heinlein Beeler Mingace & Heineman, P.C., we’ve handled sexual abuse cases, and others that frequently involve requests for confidentiality, such as product liability, sexual or racial harassment throughout Massachusetts. We are strong advocates for victims’ rights. If you or a loved has suffered harm due to such misconduct, please don’t hesitate to contact us.