Boston -- The state's highest court on Thursday ordered the Roman Catholic Jesuit order to turn over the personnel files of a priest charged with molesting two of his students at Boston College High School in the 1970s.
The Rev. James F. Talbot and the Society of Jesus of New England, known as Jesuits, sought constitutional protection under religious freedom to withhold more than 15 documents demanded by prosecutors, but a 4-3 majority of the Supreme Judicial Court disagreed.
Dissenting justices wrote that the decision may dissuade church institutions from doing their own investigations of alleged sexual assaults by clergy, and one argued that the court was undermining religious freedom in its ruling.
Talbot, 66, has pleaded innocent to one count of rape and one count of assault with attempt to rape.
Talbot was the first New England Jesuit to be prosecuted since the clergy abuse crisis started in Boston more than two years ago.
The Jesuits, one of the Catholic Church's largest religious orders, are noted educators who operate many colleges and secondary schools, including Boston College and BC High.
The alleged assaults occurred during the 1970s during one-on-one wrestling bouts between Talbot and the students, who were 14 and 17. Talbot was a teacher who also coached hockey and soccer at BC High.
Writing for the majority, Justice Martha Sosman said the state has a "compelling interest in obtaining these documents ... and that those interests outweigh the claimed interest of keeping these communications confidential."
Among the documents are communications between Talbot and his superiors.
The dissenting justices argued that the decision will have a chilling effect on internal investigations by church leaders. They will be "too reluctant to undertake such an investigation and demand full disclosure if they know that any confidential material information gained in the course of their inquiry may be divulged by force of a government subpoena."
They said the state failed to show that the documents are essential to its prosecution of Talbot.
In a separate dissent, Justice Robert Cordy wrote that that today's environment "has been poisoned by a sexual abuse scandal of unimaginable proportions.
"As a court, we must not allow the terrible circumstances of today undermine the important principle of religious freedom for tomorrow," he wrote.
Talbot joined the Jesuits in 1955 and was ordained a priest in 1968. He taught at BC High from 1972 to 1980, and then went to teach at Jesuit-run Cheverus High School in Portland, Maine.
In 1998, a former Cheverus student accused Talbot of sexual abuse. The Jesuits placed Talbot on leave and sent him to St. Luke's Institute, a private Catholic psychiatric hospital in Maryland, where many priests have sought treatment following abuse allegations against them.
Talbot allegedly assaulted two teenage boys who worked at a Jesuit residence in Boston's South End neighborhood where Talbot lived.
Talbot and his attorney, Timothy P. O'Neill, did not immediately return separate calls to comment.
Talbot is out on bail and living at the Campion Center, a Jesuit center in Weston.
Paul B. Galvani, a lawyer for the Jesuits, did not immediately return a call. The Rev. William Russell, a spokesman for the Jesuits' New England office, declined to comment.
District Attorney Daniel Conley's office also did not immediately return a call.