The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests is facing perhaps its most serious crisis in its 23 years by a court order to turn over two decades worth of internal documents.
SNAP and its allies say the order, related to an ongoing abuse lawsuit filed against a Kansas City priest, overreaches and threatens to intimidate whistle-blowers and victims of clergy sex abuse from coming forward.
“It’s a fishing expedition. It’s bullying. The Church and its lawyers are trying to bankrupt and sterilize SNAP,” said Edward N. Wilson, a lawyer and member of Voice of the Faithful, a victims’ organization. Wilson told Our Sunday Visitor that Church leaders are trying to “destroy” SNAP’s confidential relationships with sex abuse victims.
However, SNAP’s critics, who have long accused the Missouri-based organization of unfairly attacking the Church and priests accused of abuse, say that SNAP and its national director, David Clohessy, are guilty of hypocrisy for demanding transparency from the Church while refusing to turn over their records.
“They have to abide by the law. They can’t have it both ways,” said William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which published a report last year accusing SNAP of having an anti-Catholic agenda.
In December, Judge Ann Mesle of the Jackson County Circuit Court in Missouri ordered Clohessy to hand over SNAP’s internal communications with victims, journalists and others to attorneys representing Father Michael Tierney, a priest of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, who is accused of molesting a 13-year-old boy in the 1970s.
In one of five pending civil lawsuits against Father Tierney and the diocese, Judge Mesle had issued a gag order prohibiting all the involved attorneys from speaking publicly about the case. The ruling warned all parties to refrain from statements that impugned the character, credibility or reputation of any of the involved persons.
However, the accuser’s attorney, Rebecca Randles, is suspected of having supplied details of the lawsuit to SNAP, which Father Tierney’s lawyers say then printed the information in a press release.
In November, Father Tierney’s attorneys began seeking documents, and Clohessy’s deposition, to prove the alleged communications between Randles and SNAP.
Judge Mesle issued her order that SNAP produce all documents or correspondence pertaining to Father Tierney and his alleged victim. The judge’s order also instructs SNAP to hand over any communications relating to the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, its current and former priests, emails with news reporters as well as documents pertaining to repressed memory, since the plaintiff said his memories of the alleged attacks had been repressed.
Mesle wrote that Clohessy “almost certainly has knowledge concerning issues relevant to this litigation.”
The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph said its attorneys did not initiate the request for documents and Clohessy’s deposition and that it “has no interest in requiring the public identification of any victim through the civil discovery process.”
Clohessy has lost his attempts to repeal Mesle’s order. The Missouri Supreme Court declined to intervene, and issued its ruling saying it would not step in after Clohessy had already been deposed for six hours on Jan. 2.
Clohessy has still not turned over every requested document, and has indicated that a judge could fine him and SNAP, or possibly jail him, though no such requests have been made.
On SNAP’s website, Clohessy issued a statement indicating the case marked “the first time in the organization’s 23-year history that its staff has ever been ordered to turn over records, or denied its ability to speak publicly.” Wilson of Voice of the Faithful said Clohessy told him SNAP’s finances were strained in having to spend up to $35,000 in legal expenses.
SNAP outreach director Barbara Dorris said she was handed a subpoena from lawyers representing the Archdiocese of St. Louis seeking thousands of pages of records going back 23 years to include the communications of a 19-year old girl who was allegedly sexually assaulted by Joseph D. Ross, a laicized archdiocesan priest who pleaded guilty in 1988 to sexually abusing an 11-year-old boy during confession.
Dorris said in a statement that the cases marked “an unprecedented bullying effort to silence and invade the privacy of victims and their allies and protect predator priests and their corrupt supervisors.”
Newspaper editorials have sided with SNAP, as has the Missouri Press Association, which filed an amicus brief claiming that disclosing SNAP’s internal communications would “irrevocably harm the news-gathering process ... and significantly affect the quality of investigative reporting in the state.”
Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, said he shares those concerns. He said that SNAP has long provided a “safe place” where sex abuse victims can meet, talk and tell their stories, and that disclosing their written communications could further harm them.
“What seems to be happening here is a way for lawyers for the Church and accused priests to gain access to the survivors, who assumed they would have the privacy to talk with each other. It seems like a very serious matter to me,” he told OSV.
However, Dave Pierre, a critic of SNAP who wrote the book, “Double Standard: Abuse Scandals and the Attack on the Catholic Church,” said SNAP is guilty of hypocrisy.
“I think the double standard is pretty obvious. Clohessy has been vocal about the Church’s effort in the past about appearing in court, and now, when he has to take a deposition, he somehow thinks the law doesn’t apply to him,” he said. “If a judge thinks something is being done unlawfully, quite frankly, the court system has every right to find out what the truth is and how the information was obtained.
“The judge in this case has acknowledged the privacy concerns and said she will look at and rule on any documents that Clohessy feels are confidential. This is not some wild thing where people’s names are going to get thrown about. Clohessy wants everybody to think that will happen, but there is no reason to believe that,” Pierre said.
McKiernan said accusing SNAP of a double standard is like “comparing apples with oranges” because sexual abuse victims legitimately need confidentiality to be able to talk about their experiences.
Donohue said that SNAP and Clohessy would not be in their current situation “if they had just obeyed the law.”
“David Clohessy overreached. He’s been overreaching for a long time, and I think this time he got caught,” Donohue said.
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.