Should Catholic Sex Abuse Documents Be Withheld from Courts?

That’s a very good question, isn’t it?

How many times during the course of various sex abuse news cycles have we read about lawyers using various legal maneuvers to try to keep official, confidential documents pertaining to priestly sex abuses cases out of the hands of courts?

These instances only reveal what scoundrels both the lawyers are—*and* their clients. I mean, the *only* reason to try to keep a document out of the court’s hands is if you have something to hide, and that shows that you are acting in bad faith, trying to stop justice from being done.

Consider this story on the web site of the National Catholic Reporter (*not* Register):

SNAP director may be forced to testify in abuse case

KANSAS CITY, Mo.—The leading advocacy group for child victims of clergy sex abuse may be compelled to turn over 23 years of internal documents, correspondence and email to the attorneys of an accused priest unless Missouri state courts act to quash a court-ordered deposition.

David Clohessy, head of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, has been ordered to appear for deposition in a county court case involving allegations of sexual misconduct against Kansas City diocesan priest Fr. Michael Tierney.

Victims’ advocates say if Clohessy is compelled to appear, it could have wide-ranging impact on the ability of victims of clergy sex abuse to identify their accusers and tell their stories without revealing their names in public.

A law professor noted for her decades of work with clergy sex abuse victims said the “end result” of Clohessy’s deposition would be “a huge chilling effect on helping child sex abuse victims at every stage.”

Also at stake is the confidentiality of emails between reporters and victims’ advocates that may reveal sensitive information and names of sources. In a court filing, the Missouri Press Association said Clohessy’s deposition would “eviscerate the free-press guarantee” of journalists.

Clohessy has been ordered to turn over all documents and correspondence, including emails, from SNAP’s files referring to Tierney or the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese. He is also ordered to submit all documents containing references to either Tierney or the diocese from:

Press releases or press release drafts;

* Correspondence with members of the press;

* Correspondence with the lawyer representing the alleged abuse victim;

* Correspondence with members of the public.

* Clohessy has also been ordered to submit:

* Any documents or correspondence that “mention or refer to any priest currently or formerly” associated with the diocese;

* Any correspondence with the victim named in the lawsuit;

* Any correspondence from members of the public “that discuss or relates to repressed memory.”

According to court filings, defense lawyers for priests and former priests named in six other sex abuse lawsuits have requested to “cross-notice” Clohessy’s deposition in order to have access to his testimony.

Court records indicate that Clohessy and his group first attempted to quash the deposition by filing motions with Jackson County, Mo., Circuit Court Judge Ann Mesle, citing concerns of confidentiality for sex abuse victims and the rights of freedom of speech and assembly.

The records indicate Mesle overruled those concerns yesterday (Dec. 28), ordering Clohessy to submit himself for deposition Monday (Jan. 2).

Clohessy and his group appealed yesterday (Dec. 28) to Missouri’s Court of Appeals for the state’s Western District to try to quash the order. That appeal, court records indicate, was denied today (Dec. 29).

Following the denial by the appeals court, Clohessy’s lawyer said he and his client are “going to take every legal option we can” to prevent the deposition and are investigating filing for review with the Missouri Supreme Court.

Tierney’s lawyers first made the request for a deposition in November. They subpoenaed Clohessy, requesting him to testify regarding his knowledge of a lawsuit filed against Tierney on behalf of an abuse victim in September 2010.

Court filings indicate that the subpoena came after defense lawyers were concerned that a party in the suit may have violated an August 2011 gag order from Mesle by revealing some information to SNAP that was included in one of the group’s press releases.


Let me begin by making three observations:

1) Priestly sex abuse is an abomination against God and man, there are no excuses for it, and the most vigorous legal and ecclesiastical means must be used to root it out and purify both the Church and broader society (where it is as just as big a problem).

2) I have no idea what the legal merits of the motion of SNAP’s lawyers are. They may be right on the money, legally speaking—or not.

3) Regardless of the legal merits, I have no idea whether the deposition and document disclosure would be a good thing. It might be—or not.

Prescinding from those points, allow me to focus on what I consider to be a broader lesson that can be learned from this story.

Basically, regardless of the legal or practical merits of SNAP’s attempt to quash the handover of the documents, my reaction is not sympathetic.

Judging by the way it conducts itself in public, SNAP appears to be a venomous group that approaches the sex abuse scandal in an unconstructive way. They are consistently shrill, sensationalist, dogmatic, and one-sided in their approach. They fail to approach the issue with the seriousness it deserves—a seriousness that involves more than displaying righteous indignation at every opportunity. Obtaining justice means more than taking a purely one-sided view of things. If one is to avoid a destructive and unjust witch hunt, one has to be prepared to acknowledge and take seriously the fact that there is more than one side to every dispute. SNAP doesn’t convey the impression that it “gets” that fact. It neither displays proper sensitivity to the fact that not all allegations of misdoing are true nor does it properly credit steps the Catholic Church has taken to address the scandal (including, especially, steps taken by Pope Benedict, both before and after his election to the papacy).

At least not in my experience.

It would seem, from this latest incident, that I may have to add a new element to my appraisal of how SNAP behaves in public: It may also be hypocritical.

Haven’t these very same people been decrying with righteous indignation attempts by Church authorities to withhold certain records from the legal process? Haven’t we been told that these efforts displayed the Church’s bad faith, and the only reason they might have to withhold them was to cover up patterns of systematic scandalous and criminal behavior?

Matters seem different when the shoe is on the other foot, however, don’t they?

Suddenly it seems that there can be all kinds of good reasons not to have your personal files gone through by attorneys acting in an adversarial capacity (which is the way our justice system works in this country).

I’m quite sure that victims of sexual abuse whose names appear in SNAP documents might not want them revealed. But you know what? I bet abuse victims whose names appear in diocesan documents also might not want their names revealed. If protecting victim confidentiality is a reason to limit the ability of courts to probe SNAP’s documents, it’s equally a reason to protecting the confidentiality of victims who contacted dioceses.

What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

That’s justice.

And that’s just to name one legitimate reason to potentially withhold or censor documents.

So the broader lesson I want to point to is that we shouldn’t take any attempt to withhold documents as automatically an indication of bad faith or a “coverup”—either on SNAP’s part or on the part of a particular diocese or, for that matter, the Vatican.

Maybe SNAP will remember that the next time those they criticize make precisely the same kind of motions they themselves are making at this moment—and maybe they’ll show a little more understanding in their public statements.

Or maybe they won’t.

What do you think?