Updated Thursday, January 24, 2013 at 06:10 AM
A judge on Wednesday ordered the unsealing of documents related to a disgraced Roman Catholic organization called the Legion of Christ as it faces questions about its relationship to wealthy elderly patrons, but the religious order immediately moved to block it.
Superior Court Judge Michael Silverstein called the public's right to fully scrutinize the documents "paramount."
The Associated Press, The New York Times, The Providence Journal and the National Catholic Reporter had asked the judge to unseal the documents, which are from a lawsuit filed by a woman contesting the will of a wealthy aunt who left the Legion of Christ $60 million. The media organizations' attorney, Joseph Cavanagh, argued the documents could shed light on the Legion's operations and there was no justification to seal them.
The Legion, founded in Mexico City in 1941, calls itself a religious congregation of pontifical right and says its mission involves "extending the Kingdom of Christ in society," according to its website. The Vatican took over the Legion in 2010 after determining that its late founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel, had sexually molested seminarians and fathered three children by two women. The Legion has faced other complaints, including one from someone who claims to be one of Maciel's children.
The Legion's lawyer, Joseph Avanzato, had argued that the information in the documents ordered unsealed could taint prospective jurors in the case about the wealthy aunt's will and wanted them to remain hidden from public view.
Shortly after the judge's order, the Legion filed a motion to block the documents' release, Legion spokesman Jim Fair said. The judge is expected to hear arguments on Friday, Fair said.
"Obviously we don't want the documents released; that has not changed," he said. "We'll see what happens going forward."
A message was left for Cavanagh.
The judge, in his ruling, called the Legion's interest in keeping the documents sealed "diminished" because the case isn't likely to go to a jury trial. At the same time, he called the public interest "extremely significant."
"The public has a great interest in the openness of its courts," he wrote.
The wealthy aunt, Gabrielle Mee, a widow, died in 2008. Mee's niece Mary Lou Dauray had sought to challenge her will, saying Mee had been defrauded by the Legion into leaving it her fortune. The judge last year threw out the challenge because he determined the niece lacked standing, and her attorney plans to appeal.
Avanzato, the Legion's lawyer, argued that the media organizations are attempting to intervene in a case that's already settled. He said that should Dauray appeal, however, the documents must be kept under seal to ensure potential jurors approach the case with open minds.
Dauray's attorney, Bernard Jackvony, also had sought the documents' release. He said the documents, compiled in the course of the lawsuit and sealed by a probate court judge in 2009, contain information about the Legion that isn't known by the public.
The Legion, which has facilities in Rhode Island, has been the target of a petition from women once associated with it and is being sued in Connecticut by a man who says he's Maciel's son.
Another Connecticut man also is suing the Legion, alleging it used "predatory" means to persuade his ailing father to hand over hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Legion has denied the allegations in that lawsuit and said it doesn't pressure anyone to make a contribution.