By PHOEBE MOSES
ST. LOUIS, MO – Attorneys for Roman Catholic priests who stand accused of decades of sexual abuse against children are asking the courts to force a victims’ rights group to turn over private correspondence that includes emails from victims, witnesses, and members of the press.
The lawyers, who represent both the Roman Catholic Church and priests accused of child sexual abuse in two Missouri criminal cases, have asked the court to compel the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests—which operates under the acronym “SNAP”—to divulge the contents of more than twenty years of emails, which might include correspondence between victims, advocates, witnesses, law enforcement, journalists, attorneys, and informants.
Although SNAP and its officers are neither plaintiffs nor defendants in the cases, the organization has been subpoenaed several times in recent months by attorneys for the Archdiocese of St. Louis and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. In the case of the latter, last year its religious and administrative leader, Bishop Robert W. Finn became the first American Roman Catholic bishop to be criminally indicted for his failure to report suspected child abuse.
A Kansas City judge has ruled that SNAP must comply with the subpoenas because the group “almost certainly” has information that is relevant to the criminal complaint against Finn. SNAP activists and their proponents believe the church is engaged in intimidation tactics that are designed to silence the organization, which has provided support andadvocacy for victims of clerical sex abuse for over twenty years. Church attorneys say the ongoing case prevents them to respond to such charges, but William Donohue, the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a church advocacy group, is under no such injunction.
Donohue, a staunch defender of Roman Catholic principles and organization, believes the church is the actual victim of its enemies. “What accounts for the relentless attacks on the Church? Let’s face it: if its teachings were pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage and prowomen clergy, the dogs would have been called off years ago,” Donohue said last year. “SNAP is a menace to the Catholic Church.”
In January, David Clohessy, SNAP’s national director, was subpoenaed for information he might possess, material and otherwise, concerning the case against Father Michael Tierney, a Kansas City priest who is accused of previous sexual abuse by four separate plaintiffs. Although the cases fall outside the statute of limitations under Missouri law, the plaintiffs’ attorneys argue that their clients only recently recovered their memories of the earlier abuses.
The diocesan bishop, the Rt. Rev. Robert Finn, is likewise criminally charged with failing to report Tierney’s abuse after he became aware of it. The subpoena required Clohessy to turn over all documents he has from the past 23 years that relate to repressed memories, as well as any mention of past or current priests in Kansas City, Father Tierney himself, John Doe—the name given in the indictment to the plaintiffs— or Doe’s attorney, Rebecca Randles.
Attorneys for the church say that SNAP’s records may show that Randles violated a court gag order in handing over information concerning one of the John Doe B.P. v. the Rev. Michael Tierney and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph cases to the organization in advance, which was then released to the press by the group. Randles has denied violating the gag order.
The Missouri Press Association filed a brief in support of ten victims’ advocacy groups that argued the subpoena was unconstitutional. Jackson County, Missouri Circuit Court Judge Ann Mesle ruled that Clohessy “almost certainly has knowledge concerning issues relevant to this litigation,” and ordered him to release the files and submit to a deposition by the attorneys for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
Donohue, the head of the New York Citybased Catholic League, applauds the aggressive tactics of the church. “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,” Donohue said online this week.
In an exclusive South Florida interview, Clohessy told Agenda Editor Cliff Dunn the reasons for the church’s ferocity in its response to people to whom it is putatively ministering.
“They’re afraid of those who come to us and those we advocate for, namely the victims, whistleblowers, police, prosecutors, journalists and concerned Catholics,” said Clohessy. “They’re afraid that these people will recognize what’s been going on behind the scenes, and they’re afraid what that will mean for their veil of secrecy and what uncovering it will do to their collection plate every Sunday.”
SNAP was founded by Clohessy and others who had been victimized by Roman Catholic priests. It was originally established as an association of volunteers with a goal to assist others with similar experiences. Clohessy said that the organization refers victims to attorneys and mental health professionals.
During his January deposition at the hands of the victimizer’s attorneys, the questions were aimed at establishing that SNAP does not qualify as a rape crisis and counseling center, which, under Missouri law, would not shield its records from subpoena.
Clohessy refused to answer all the church attorneys’ questions, and he and SNAP have refused to hand over all of the subpoenaed records. The defendants’ attorneys have therefore filed a motion with the court and Judge Mesle to force SNAP to comply with the court order. A hearing on that motion has been set for Friday, April 20.
SNAP and its leaders are sincere in their desire to avoid the prolonged fight that the Catholic League’s Donohue has conjured, and hope that clearer heads prevail within the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, so that the church’s great resources may be used to help and support victims—and stand watch against the likelihood of future ones. They want to avoid a potentially destructive, diocese-by-diocese guerilla war. Clohessy is circumspect but still optimistic.
“We hope not, but we are certainly preparing for it,” he offers. “What we’re trying to accomplish in this stand, however, is to prove that such an attack would be a waste of time and resources. We’ve already demonstrated our financial and personal commitment to this fight is 100%, and that we’re not going to go away no matter how difficult we find it to pay the bills.”