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Judge to reconsider whether Berkshire Eagle must give Diocese confidential source notes

 The office of the bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Nancy Eve Cohen
/
NEPM
The office of the bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese in Springfield, Massachusetts.

A Hampden County judge is reconsidering an earlier decision to compel The Berkshire Eagle to hand over a reporter’s interview notes with a confidential source about allegations of clergy sexual assault.

Larry Parnass, the newspaper's managing editor for innovation, reported in 2019 that a former Chicopee altar boy told the Roman Catholic Springfield Diocese Review Board that he was sexually assaulted by the late Bishop Christopher Weldon and two priests in the 1960s.

Parnass said his reporting verified the claim to the board, but did not verify the rape.

A year later, an independent investigation commissioned by the diocese, and headed up by retired Judge Peter Velis, found the allegations against Weldon to be “unequivocally credible.”

The survivor, identified as plaintiff "John Doe," filed a civil suit against the diocese last year. It sought recovery for multiple brutal rapes and alleged attempts by the diocese to cover up both Weldon’s acts and the review board's finding that the allegations are credible.

Lawyers for the diocese, who are fighting the civil suit, subpoenaed Parnass to hand over his interview notes and documents.

Judge Karen Goodwin approved a narrower request earlier this year. But a lawyer for The Eagle, Jeffrey Pyle, asked Goodwin to fully block the subpoena.

"The documents and testimony that the court has found potentially relevant, cannot be produced without outing Mr. Parnass' source to the defendants," Pyle said in a hearing Thursday, held by Zoom.

Pyle argued that lawyers for the diocese had failed to fully depose other people who were present when the survivor made his claims, so they had not done enough to demand Parnass break his promise of confidentiality.

Known as "the reporter’s privilege," journalists have a right not to reveal confidential sources in a court case under the First Amendment — but it is a limited right that courts weigh against other factors.

"This story would never have been published by The Berkshire Eagle had not Mr. Parnass been able to assure confidential sources of his promise not to reveal their identities," Pyle said.

Pyle compared it to other cases "that wouldn't have been reported except for the confidential source protection," such as stories on the Pentagon Papers, Watergate and Abu Ghraib.

But Michael McDonough, an attorney for the diocese, argued the church wants to see Parnass' notes so it can properly defend itself against the civil suit.

"We’d like to see the emails, the information that was alleged to have been said by the plaintiff," he said at the hearing. "It’s relevant to the claim that we, in disagreeing with [the reporting of] Mr. Parnass, have somehow attempted to intentionally cause the plaintiff intentional distress, defame him or commit other torts against him."

Pyle said he had examined Parnass' notes and said there is no way to comply with the court's order while still protecting the identity of the confidential source.

Parnass said The Eagle doesn't like to be the subject of a news story, but in this case it had to take a firm stand.

"Confidential sources and particularly documents that confidential sources provide, which can be independently verified in combination with on the record interviews, help to get things out into the public that in other in other ways might not get out there," Parnass said in an interview.

Goodwin said Thursday she would reconsider her previous decision allowing the diocese a limited subpoena, but made no promises.

"I am going to reconsider it, but that's not representing that I am going to change it," Goodwin said. "I will look at it again, think about it a little more in light of these arguments."

Goodwin said she would rule "shortly."

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.