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Judge allows AP to be heard in dispute over Saints emails

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Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

FILE - In this Oct. 23, 2016, file photo, a New Orleans Saints helmet rests on the playing field before an NFL football game in Kansas City, Mo. The Saints are going to court to keep the public from seeing hundreds of emails that allegedly show team executives doing public relations damage control for the area's Roman Catholic archdiocese to help it contain the fallout from a burgeoning sexual abuse crisis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

NEW ORLEANS, La. – A judge ruled Friday that The Associated Press may be heard in a court dispute over whether to release hundreds of confidential emails that detail the New Orleans Saints' behind-the-scenes public relations work to help area Roman Catholic leaders deal with a sexual abuse crisis.

The news organization filed a motion urging the release of the emails, which surfaced in a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of New Orleans but remain confidential, calling them a matter of public interest. That request was opposed by the archdiocese and the Saints, who argued the communications were private.

Judge Ellen Hazeur of Orleans Parish Civil District Court agreed the emails were of “public concern” and ordered a special master to determine next month whether the documents should be made public. That hearing was scheduled for Feb. 20.

Mary Ellen Roy, an attorney for the AP, told reporters after the hearing that Louisiana law is clear on the issue of whether the news organization may be heard in court. She called the emails “an issue of extraordinary interest” for the heavily Catholic community, adding it’s also “important for the victims and advocates.”

The Saints maintain their public relations work for the church in 2018 and 2019 was minimal, dealing mostly with “messaging” and managing media inquiries around the archdiocese's release of its list of 57 credibly accused clergy.

But attorneys for about two dozen men suing the church say the emails show Saints executives doing damage control for the archdiocese and even helping select which names to include on the list of credibly accused clergy.

"This case does not involve intensely private individuals who are dragged into the spotlight,” the AP argued in a court filing, “but well-known mega-institutions that collect millions of dollars from local residents to support their activities.”

While the Saints opposed the AP's motion, the team has said it does not object to the 276 documents being made public at a later stage in the litigation. An attorney for the NFL team objected to some of the confidential materials being filed into the record Friday.