ST. LOUIS — An advocacy group that has relentlessly pressured Roman Catholic leaders to reveal the scope of sex abuse in the church has been ordered to disclose records to a priest's defense lawyers that could include years of emails with victims, journalists and others.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests has so far failed to block the ruling by a judge, which requires the organization to produce the documents and also allows defense attorneys to depose the network's national director, David Clohessy, on Tuesday. The Missouri Press Association has filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing the order is unconstitutional.
Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Ann Mesle said Clohessy must comply because he "almost certainly has knowledge concerning issues relevant to this litigation." Mesle argued that Clohessy is free not to respond to specific questions at the deposition and can request that individual documents remain confidential.
Mesle issued the order in one of five abuse lawsuits against the Rev. Michael Tierney and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. The plaintiff, identified only as John Doe, B.P., said he was 13 when Tierney attacked and molested him in the 1970s. All attorneys involved in Tierney's case are under a gag order.
Defense lawyers sought the documents as evidence that the accuser's attorney, Rebecca Randles, violated the gag order by giving details of the case to the Survivors Network. The defense claims the group then printed the information in a press release. Tierney has previously denied any wrongdoing. Last June, the diocese barred him from any public church work and from presenting himself as a priest.
Under the ruling, the network must produce all documents or correspondence relating to Tierney, the diocese, any priest currently or formerly associated with the diocese, the Survivors Network communication with the plaintiff and any documents related to repressed memory. The plaintiff in the lawsuit said he had repressed memories of the assault for years. The National Catholic Reporter, an independent publication that has spearheaded investigative coverage of clergy abuse, was first to report the order for the documents Friday.
In a statement, Clohessy called the defense request "a bullying effort" that invades victims' privacy. He said the order was so broad that it could require him to produce documents involving whistleblowers, victims, parishioners, parents and journalists in other cases with no direct connection to Tierney or the diocese.
"We are going to take every possible legal step to prevent the disclosure of information concerning SNAP members and supporters, including those who have been sexually abused," said Jeff Jensen, Clohessy's attorney.
The Missouri Press Association wrote in its brief that the disclosure would "irrevocably harm the news-gathering process, chill speech by both the news media and potential sources and significantly affect the quality of investigative reporting in the state." Missouri is one of the few states without a shield law that would protect journalists from being forced to reveal their sources and notes, said Jean Maneke, an attorney for the press association.
The Survivors Network has been at the center of the Catholic abuse scandal for more than two decades, as a support and guide for victims and a constant critic of church hierarchs who failed to warn police or parents about serial offenders in the priesthood. As the costs of the scandal have skyrocketed, many bishops and other Catholics have viewed the advocacy group as an enemy, accusing the network of funneling clients to plaintiffs' lawyers who want to enrich themselves and bankrupt the church. According to studies commissioned by the U.S. bishops, dioceses have paid about $3 billion in settlements and other costs related to more than 15,700 abuse claims since 1950.
The Survivors Network argues the overwhelming majority of victims who seek the group's help do not sue over their abuse.
Marci Hamilton, a law professor and advocate for victims, said defense lawyers in other abuse cases have tried to gain access to the Survivors Network records, but the Jackson County case was the first time the request has been granted. The group's attorneys have asked the Missouri Supreme Court to intervene.
"If you see that talking to any survivors' group means your story could show up in any state in front of any other lawyers, then people are just going to shut down again," said Hamilton, a specialist in church-state issues at Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University in New York.
Some commentators, however, said the network was hypocritical for demanding public release of diocesan records, while being unwilling to be transparent itself.
"Haven't these very same people been decrying with righteous indignation attempts by church authorities to withhold certain records from the legal process?" wrote Jimmy Akin, a columnist with the independent National Catholic Register. "Matters seem different when the shoe is on the other foot, however, don't they?"