Nebraska Catholic institutions will have more time to comply with AG’s subpoena, judge rules

LINCOLN — The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office agreed Friday to give Nebraska’s Catholic bishops, churches and schools more time to produce sex abuse records after two dioceses sued to have the state’s subpoenas quashed.

The dioceses said the subpoenas carried impossible-to-meet deadlines, were overly broad and could potentially cost millions of dollars to fulfill.

Lancaster County District Judge Robert Otte approved an agreement Friday afternoon between attorneys for the dioceses of Omaha and Lincoln and the Attorney General’s Office. The lawyers agreed to meet early next week to discuss the two sides’ differences.

The subpoenas, served Tuesday on more than 400 Catholic parishes and schools, had demanded that records be produced by Friday. The judge continued the hearing until March 12. The Attorney General’s Office agreed that it would not take any steps to compel compliance until after that hearing.

The dioceses have said they will cooperate, but they said there was no way they could comply by the deadline. Their lawsuit said that subpoenas served on diocesan offices Tuesday required that they “immediately” produce 22 years’ worth of “business, real estate, litigation, financial, employment, personnel and insurance records, including email and other digital or electronically stored information.” Diocesan Catholic schools and religious order schools were also listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The subpoenas issued to schools and parishes demanded records on any “inappropriate conduct with a child.” The dioceses called that phrase overly vague and said that while it would include child abuse and sexual assault, it could also include “a myriad of conduct” that had nothing to do with abuse.

It would cost millions of dollars to search thousands of computers across the state and in time and travel expense, the dioceses contended.

The dioceses said they have been cooperating with Attorney General Doug Peterson’s investigation, including by complying with his request last September to hand over 40 years’ worth of records on sexual abuse.

The dioceses asked the court to either quash the subpoenas or to order the Attorney General’s Office to limit the scope, be more specific about the records it’s demanding, accept copies instead of original records and extend the deadlines for compliance: to 60 days for the dioceses, and 30 days for the schools.

Otte did not rule on those requests Friday. The lawyers agreed to try to work out their differences before the March 12 hearing.

Attorneys for both sides declined to comment Friday.

The Attorney General’s Office issued a written statement Friday with more of an explanation of why it served the subpoenas.

“Based on information the Dioceses voluntarily provided in the fall of 2018 in response to the Attorney General’s letter to Nebraska Dioceses, it was apparent the records produced were not complete,” the statement said. “As of today, there are a number of Catholic institutions that have complied with the subpoenas. Those records have contained information not previously produced. The Attorney General’s foremost concern is that these records be produced in a complete and unaltered state.”

The Attorney General’s Office has agreed to discussions but “believes that information not yet disclosed, needs to be made available for review as soon as possible,” the statement said.

The Archdiocese of Omaha issued a statement noting the two sides’ differences over the subpoenas and the agreement to discuss them.

“We look forward to our meeting with the Attorney General’s Office,” the archdiocese said.

The archdiocese said it would continue cooperating with the investigation. Deacon Tim McNeil said Thursday night that the 40 years’ worth of documents the archdiocese delivered to the attorney general in November exceeded 11,500 pages.

The Lincoln Diocese said in a written statement that it “has and will continue to cooperate with the Attorney General’s investigation.”

“However, without any notice, more than 150 subpoenas were served this week by the Attorney General on the Diocese of Lincoln and its schools and parishes,” the statement said.

It said it was “simply not possible to respond in a timely and complete way” by the subpoenas’ deadline.

“For this reason, and consistent with its legal obligations, the Diocese filed a joint action with the Archdiocese of Omaha seeking judicial relief from the subpoenas,” the Lincoln Diocese said. “Despite having to take this step, the Diocese of Lincoln will continue to cooperate with the Attorney General to provide records and information in a timely and reasonable way.”