- (Photo: Reuters/Dave Kaup)
A victims advocacy organization alleging pressure from lawyers representing the Roman Catholic Church to hand over confidential documents related to clergy sex abuse cases claims the tactics being used are akin to "bullying" and "intimidation." Church officials deny, however, that any tactics are being used to pressure the group.
The advocacy group, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, has been uniting clergy sex abuse victims since 1991, offering counseling, group support and legal advisement. The group is known for having filed a lawsuit against top Vatican leaders, including Pope Benedict XVI, at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague in Sept. 2011.
When lawyers representing the Catholic Church in two Missouri sexual abuse cases, one in St. Louis and the other in Kansas City, requested in Dec. 2011 that SNAP release confidential documents, including emails between the organization and abuse victims as well as whistle-blowers and witnesses, SNAP viewed the request as a form of harassment.
The case in St Louis is currently "on hold" until May, but the one in Kansas City has been moving ahead more quickly, and on April 20 the court is expected to decide whether SNAP will have to reveal the emails, David Clohessy, SNAP's national director and spokesman, told The Christian Post. Whatever the court's decision, each side is likely to appeal, he added.
SNAP had already provided "hundreds of pages of documents" that were less confidential, Clohessy said, but "they [the Catholic Church lawyers] still want more." The spokesman fears that once the information is released from SNAP, there is no telling who will have access to them, even if the court orders the documents to be sealed.
"We're incredibly scared about what will happen to victims, witnesses, whistle-blowers, police, prosecutors, journalists and us, if the church defense lawyers win," Clohessy told CP. All of those who cooperated with SNAP believe, and "understandably so, that their privacy will be protected," he explained. If confidential emails between sources, victims and SNAP are released, it will have a "chilling effect" on their relations.
The demands arise from two civil lawsuits, one titled "Jane Doe v. Fr. Joseph D. Ross and the St. Louis Archdiocese" and another called "John Doe BP v. Fr. Michael Tierney and the Kansas City Diocese." The St. Louis suit charges that Ross molested the plaintiff, a young female, between 1997 and 2001 at St. Cronan's Catholic Church in St. Louis. In 1988, Ross also reportedly pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting an 11-year-old boy. SNAP accused the Catholic Church of placing the clergyman at St. Cronan's without having warned anyone of his criminal past. Ross remained a spiritual leader until as recently as 2002, according to SNAP.
The Kansas City suit charges that Tierney molested a boy. At least four other accusers in separate lawsuits have reportedly come forward against Tiereny and he was suspended last year because church officials deemed some of the allegations credible, according to SNAP.
Lawyers in both cases are demanding SNAP disclose proofs of communication dating back years.
SNAP's Clohessy was deposed from the Kansas City case in January by attorneys representing the church. Until then, most of the questions directed at him in court were not about the case but about the network -- its budget, board of directors, staff members, donors and operating procedures, according to The New York Times.
"It was not a fishing expedition," Clohessy told the Times then. "It was a fishing, crabbing, shrimping, trash-collecting, draining-the-pond expedition. The real motive is to harass and discredit and bankrupt SNAP, while discouraging victims, witnesses, whistle-blowers, police, prosecutors and journalists from seeking our help."
Recently, the president of the U.S. Catholic League, William Donohue, added to the controversy by suggesting to the press that requests for documentation are a part of the Catholic Church's new, "toughened up" national strategy. Donohue suggested leading bishops he knew had resolved to fight back more aggressively against SNAP.
"The bishops have come together collectively. I can't give you the names, but there's a growing consensus on the part of the bishops that they had better toughen up and go out and buy some good lawyers to get tough. We don't need altar boys," Donohue told the Times last week. He also called SNAP a "menace to the Catholic Church."
Although a spokeswoman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops denied that there is a "national strategy" of the sort, Donohue's testimony helped strengthen SNAP members' conviction that the Catholic Church is attempting to target them. The group has launched an online petition addressed to Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, asking him to put a halt to "bullying tactics used by bishops and church defense lawyers against those seeking help from the support group SNAP."
"We've been out for 23 years," but the records have never been asked for until now, Clohessy told CP. "And now, twice in a matter of weeks, we're hit with these legal assaults."
Donohue of the U.S. Catholic League also reportedly said that bishops were rethinking the Catholic Church's approach of paying large settlements to groups of victims. "The church has been too quick to write a check, and I think they've realized it would be a lot less expensive in the long run if we fought them one by one," he was quoted saying.
It is not clear how much money annually the Catholic Church spends on court cases related to sex scandals.
According to a 2004 report, there were approximately 10,667 reported victims (younger than 18 years old) of clergy sexual abuse between 1950 and 2002. According to a 2011 John Jay Report, The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010, the peak in such lawsuits occurred in 2002. A great majority of the victims in the U.S. scandal were male.
The report states that clergy sexual abuse of minors in the American Catholic Church is a historical problem with the vast majority of cases occurring from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. About 94 percent of all cases occurred before 1990 and some 70 percent of clergy offenders were ordained as priests before 1970. The fact that actual assaults occurred years ago tends to be a complication in legal proceedings, especially as the statute of limitations and often deaths of alleged predators or witnesses make lawsuits impossible.
When the major sex abuse scandal erupted in 2002, the bishops met at their conference in Dallas with SNAP members who gave emotional testimonies about the toll of the alleged abuse. But relations have deteriorated since then, and SNAP members say bishops now refuse to meet with them.
The U.S. Catholic Church has since undertaken a campaign of rebuilding the public's trust, including initiatives such as the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," written to better define abuse and prevent it.