updated 10/5/2009 1:54:45 PM ET 2009-10-05T17:54:45

The Supreme Court refused on Monday to block the release of documents generated by lawsuits against priests in Connecticut for alleged sexual abuse.

The justices turned down a request by the Roman Catholic diocese in Bridgeport, Conn.

Several newspapers are seeking the release of more than 12,000 pages from 23 lawsuits against six priests.

The records have been under seal since the diocese settled the cases in 2001. Courts in Connecticut have ruled that the papers should be made public.

The decision ends a legal battle that dragged on for years and could shed light on how recently retired New York Cardinal Edward Egan handled the allegations when he was Bridgeport bishop.

It's unclear when the documents will be released.

Waterbury Superior Court clerk Philip Groth said he needs to consult a judge to determine whether a hearing is necessary before the records are released. He said Monday morning it was unlikely the documents would be released Monday.

The Bridgeport diocese, which had argued unsuccessfully that the documents were subject to religious privileges under the First Amendment, said it was disappointed in the decision.

"The content of the sealed documents soon to be released has already been extensively reported on," the diocese said in a statement. "For more than a decade, the Catholic Church in Bridgeport has addressed the issue of clergy sexual abuse compassionately and comprehensively. For now, however, the serious threat to the First Amendment rights of all churches and the rightful privacy of all litigants remain in jeopardy because of the decision of the Connecticut Supreme Court. This, indeed, is regrettable."

A telephone message was left Monday for an attorney for the newspapers.

'Protecting a predator'
A Waterbury Superior Court said in 2006 that the documents were subject to a presumption of public access. The Connecticut Supreme Court upheld the lower court decision.

Barbara Blaine, founder of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, welcomed the decision.

"This decision sends a clear message to those who would endanger kids: Eventually, you'll have to face the music and reveal your callousness, recklessness and deceit," Blaine said in a statement. "We hope that this ruling will deter every pedophile's supervisor and co-workers from protecting a predator."

She urged Bridgeport Bishop William E. Lori to disclose how much the diocese spent in church donations on the case.

But the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement supporting Lori's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The bishops said they have taken steps to protect children and help victims of sexual abuse.

"However, when a claim of sexual abuse results in litigation, we must remain vigilant against the risk that court-enforced avenues for the legitimate disclosure of documents are not abused in particular cases, resulting in the excessive entanglement of the state in the affairs of the Church," the bishops' statement said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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