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Will contests against church order lead to free press claims

Twin Cities readers who tuned into a previous discussion about probate litigation involving the Catholic order known as the Legion of Christ may be interested to hear about recent developments in a separate but similar case. The first case involved a will contest initiated by the son of a man who donated more than $1 million in retirement funds to the order. Acting as executor of his father's estate, the son claimed that the order engaged in coercion and exercised undue influence to convince his father to make the sizable donation.

Revelations that the founder of the secretive order had fathered children by three different women and molested seminarians led the Vatican to take control of the organization in 2010. Those revelations ultimately led to a spate of lawsuits including the million dollar undue influence case and a similar case brought by the niece of a woman who made a testamentary gift to the Legion amounting to $60 million.

A judge in Rhode Island dismissed the niece's suit upon a finding that she lacked standing to raise her legal claims. The niece's attorney plans to appeal, but her lawsuit has sparked collateral litigation along the way. During the course of the niece's lawsuit, she compiled documents containing information about the Legion that has yet to be revealed to the public. Those documents had remained sealed at the order of the probate judge who presided over the niece's case, but an appellate judge decided that the public is entitled to have the documents released.

In an unusual twist on a probate case, the suit to compel the public release of the document was raised not by an interested heir, but by four different media organizations. The plaintiffs included such notable press outlets as the Associated Press and The New York Times. The press and the public will have to wait some time longer though, if not indefinitely, before the contentious documents see the light of day. The appellate judge has agreed to keep them sealed so that the Legion has an opportunity to present its concerns to the state supreme court.

Source: Star-Tribune, "RI judge agrees to delay unsealing documents from lawsuit against disgraced Legion of Christ," David Klepper, Jan. 25, 2013

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