Church Puts Legal Pressure on Abuse Victims’ Group

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New York Times

12 March 2012


Dan Gill for The New York Times:  David Clohessy keeps records from his advocacy group, known as SNAP, in his St. Louis home.

Turning the tables on an advocacy group that has long supported victims of pedophile priests, lawyers for the Roman Catholic Church and priests accused of sexual abuse in two Missouri cases have gone to court to compel the group to disclose more than two decades of e-mails that could include correspondence with victims, lawyers, whistle-blowers, witnesses, the police, prosecutors and journalists.

The group, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, is neither a plaintiff nor a defendant in the litigation. But the group has been subpoenaed five times in recent months in Kansas City and St. Louis, and its national director, David Clohessy, was questioned by a battery of lawyers for more than six hours this year. A judge in Kansas City ruled that the network must comply because it “almost certainly” had information relevant to the case.

The network and its allies say the legal action is part of a campaign by the church to cripple an organization that has been the most visible defender of victims, and a relentless adversary, for more than two decades. “If there is one group that the higher-ups, the bishops, would like to see silenced,” said Marci A. Hamilton, a law professor at Yeshiva University and an advocate for victims of clergy sex crimes, “it definitely would be SNAP. And that’s what they’re going after. They’re trying to find a way to silence SNAP.”

Lawyers for the church and priests say they cannot comment because of a judge’s order. But William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a church advocacy group in New York, said targeting the network was justified because “SNAP is a menace to the Catholic Church.”

Mr. Donohue said leading bishops he knew had resolved to fight back more aggressively against the group: “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.”

He said bishops were also rethinking their 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,” Mr. Donohue said.

However, a spokeswoman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, said Mr. Donohue was incorrect.

“There is no national strategy,” she said, and there was no meeting where legal counsel for the bishops decided to get more aggressive.

Mr. Clohessy and others founded the survivors network as a loose collective of volunteers who had been victimized by Catholic priests. Their goal was to help others grapple with the emotional and psychological fallout. They make referrals to therapists and lawyers, and hold protests outside church offices.

The group has three paid staff members, two part-time administrators and volunteers who lead 55 chapters in the United States and about 8 overseas. Its total revenue for 2010 was $352,903, some of it donations by lawyers who have sued the church. The group says it has spent about $50,000 and hundreds of hours of staff time since the subpoenas began, and is now arranging for lawyers who will work pro bono.

When the scandal over clergy sexual abuse reached a peak in Boston in 2002, American bishops met at their conference in Dallas with network members who gave emotional testimony about the toll of the abuse. But relations have deteriorated since then, and SNAP members say bishops now refuse to meet with them.

The first indication that the network would be caught up in legal proceedings came from Kansas City, where Bishop Robert W. Finn last year became the first American bishop ever to be criminally indicted for failure to report suspected child abuse.

Mr. Clohessy received a subpoena in October at his St. Louis home, where he works, regarding the case John Doe B.P. v. the Rev. Michael Tierney and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

Four plaintiffs are accusing Father Tierney of sexually abusing them years ago. The cases would be outside the statute of limitations in Missouri, but the plaintiffs contend they recovered their memories of abuse only recently.

The subpoena asked that Mr. Clohessy turn over all documents in the last 23 years that mention repressed memory, any current or former priest in Kansas City, the diocese, Father Tierney, John Doe or Rebecca Randles, the attorney for the plaintiffs.

The church’s lawyers say they need to see SNAP’s records to investigate whether Ms. Randles violated a gag order by giving the group information about one of the Tierney cases before it was filed, which the group then included in a news release.

Ms. Randles said in an interview: “I certainly didn’t violate the gag order that is based on the ethics rules. And I did get an informal opinion from the Missouri bar ethics council indicating that it was acceptable to give an advance copy of the petition as long as my client had given me permission to do so.”

Ten victims’ advocacy groups filed a supporting brief arguing that the subpoena was unconstitutional. The Missouri Press Association also filed a supporting brief.

However, Judge Ann Mesle of Missouri Circuit Court in Jackson County ruled that Mr. Clohessy must release the files and be deposed because he “almost certainly has knowledge concerning issues relevant to this litigation”

Mr. Clohessy was deposed in January by lawyers for five accused priests and the diocese. In the 215-page transcript, made public on March 2, most of the questions were not about the case but about the network — its budget, board of directors, staff members, donors and operating procedures.

Mr. Clohessy testified that he had never had contact with John Doe.

“It was not a fishing expedition,” Mr. Clohessy said. “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.”

Many of the questions were intended to prove that the group does not meet the definition of a rape crisis center. If it did, the group’s records would be shielded under a Missouri statute.

In a damaging admission, Mr. Clohessy answered, “Sure,” when asked whether his group had ever issued a press release that contained false information. In an interview on Monday, he said his response had been an acknowledgment that there must have been some errors in the thousands of news releases and alerts that the group had sent out over the years, “but never intentionally, and never mistakes of substance.”

While Mr. Clohessy was being deposed, another network employee in St. Louis, Barbara Dorris, received a subpoena involving the case of Jane Doe 92 v. the Archdiocese of St. Louis, et al.

That subpoena was nearly identical to the one issued to Mr. Clohessy, said Ken Chackes, the attorney for Jane Doe. It requested all correspondence about repressed memory even though the Jane Doe case does not involve repressed memory.

Mr. Chackes said, “I assume there’s some kind of communication” between the church lawyers in the two cities.

In the Kansas City case, SNAP refused to turn over all the subpoenaed documents or answer all the questions in the deposition. So attorneys for the church and the priests have filed a motion to compel SNAP to comply. A hearing on the motion is scheduled for April 20.

The experience has sent a chill through the network’s volunteers, Ms. Dorris said. “They want to do what’s right, and they want to help others, but this is a threat,” she said. “I think for some it’s strengthened their resolve, but others are scared.”

12 Responses to Church Puts Legal Pressure on Abuse Victims’ Group

  1. Sylvia says:

    I am not a member of SNAP. My reasons are personal. I do however commend the work SNAP has done over the years in exposing many a molester and cover-up in the Church.

    Do I believe that this is an attempt by Church officials to shut SNAP down? Sadly, I do.

    Note that William Donohue, the well-paid President of the of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights is quoted (annual salary $400,00+). Donuhue has been on the warpath for some time now trying to minimize the magnitude of the sex abuse scandal and cover-up in the Church. Here he is again, claiming that:

    “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.”

    A spokeswoman for the United States Catholic Conference claims: “There is no national strategy.”

    Who to believe?

  2. JG says:

    Isn’t it just what we would expect from the church: ”In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit …and their Lawyer ”
    They leave quite a lasting impression, don’t they!

    I am not too familiar with SNAP, but wouldn’t this information be privileged, sort of in Trust from the victims/members?…not really SNAP’s property?…an example of information gathered as through a confession!…by a journalist ?…Why would the Church not be forced to unseal the confession box?…Because their own rule prevents such disclosure, because God is on their team??!! Where is the equality under the Law?…
    I think the playing field is skewed if the Church can influence this type of request and not have to face the same…and what about the church “secret files”…the shredding we were told about on another tread!!
    Maybe SNAP just needs to follow the church example and invest in shredders!!!
    …establish a secret filing system protected by a communal oath to safeguard the SNAP divine right!!
    Give SNAP religion! Why not . So many others do it without purpose other than escape the Tax Man!!
    …thinking aloud! Sorry.

  3. deeplybetrayed says:

    This is a sign that the church leaders are scrambling. They increase the oppression, turn up the heat, turn the guns on the innocent (or troublemakers); they have money and power, lots of money to pay the best lawyers, etc. They are expert in crushing what they want to crush, vindictive, sharp and merciless.
    It’s embarrassing to call this a Christian church when we see what they do to the most vulnerable? What would Jesus do? Would he get out his whip of cords and empty this temple saying, “Stop making my Father’s house a ____?”
    We can fit our own word in there.
    This is so sad….and corrupt.

  4. Mike Mc says:

    You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated. We are all scandalised by the sins and failures of some of the Church’s members.
    Pope Benedict XVI
    Apology to Irish victims of sex abuse by priests, in a letter to Irish Catholics.

    Child abuse casts a shadow the length of a lifetime.
    Herbert Ward

    I hope William Donahue can put those two quotes in his $400,000 pipe and annual salary, and smoke it.

  5. Michel Bertrand says:

    “Lawyers for the church and priests say they cannot comment because of a judge’s order. But William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a church advocacy group in New York, said targeting the network was justified because “SNAP is a menace to the Catholic Church.””

    The Catholic Church and it’s cleric administrators and abusers are a menace to the Catholic Church.

  6. This is just another attempt for the church to try and silence the truth from coming to the public light. S.N.A.P has been the loudest voice against the church in their policies in covering up child molestation and to silently shuffle the pedophile priests to new communities to re abuse.

    The church should just realize that they can not hide from the truth any longer and they should just open their books to investigators and look through all complaints that were received in the Bishops offices and completely ignored and not only disclose who these priests are, but also where they now live and what position that they hold seeing that the pope does not want to defrock any priest no matter how horrendous the crimes are.

  7. Mike says:

    I find this truly remarkable. The Church, when it is convenient to do so, resorts to Civil Law to shout down and oppress it’s victims of sexual abuse. Yet almost in the same breath, it uses “Canon Law” to justify it’s control over the masses, it’s “Supreme Authority” in matters pertaining to God, marraige unnulment, etc.
    I smell Marie Antoinette here!!!! Mike.

  8. deeplybetrayed says:

    I smell Joan of Arc.
    I wonder what she knew that led her to the stake.

  9. Baspuits says:

    To bad they are independent, one diocese from another!
    They all could do like ArchBishop Diarmuid Collins from Dublin Ireland= (this was on 60 minutes two Sundays ago)
    I double-dare you not to drop a tear or two at Mgr Diarmuid Collins last sentence!

    First one that makes sense to me!
    Anybody has all bishops email, as in mass emailing!

  10. Baspuits says:

    Arch bishop Martin’s quote, “Abuse isn’t– it isn’t– it isn’t just the, you know, the actual sexual acts, which are horrendous, but sexual abuse of a child is– it’s a total abuse of power. It’s actually saying to a child, “I control you.” And that is saying to the child, “You’re worthless.””, focuses on the abuse of power and value of the victim. The power difference offers opportunity to the abuser who satiates their lustful desire for a child. The child is defiled by the incomprehensible sexual act. Abuse has everything to do with the sexual acts contrary to Martin. It is the unbridled lust of an adult who first breaks all conscience in allowing the idea to form to the perpetration and sexual violation of a child. There are so many violations wrapped up in those which are sexual – violations of personal freedom and liberty, violations of the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual boundary of the individual person, violations of the trust relationship, violations of the duty of care, violations of the obligations to the parents or guardians of the child, violations of the social norms and values of decent society, violations of the sanctuary of peace and happiness in the child, violations of the sexual development of the child. The list goes on. Horribly the list goes on. It is unspeakable and unbearable to comprehend the full extent of the violations that echo within every room of the house that is the damaged child. All disregard and disrespect is shown to the dignity of the most vulnerable human person, a child. The perpetrator violates all the bonds of trust for lust. The control is sexual control. The worthlessness is the sexual disposability of a child in satisfying the depraved lusts of an adult. The child so violated is no longer a child within the bonds of family but is a child carrying enormous shame and guilt without the bonds of family – an island unable to speak of it, imprisoned within the monstrousness of the sexual abuse and blaming themselves for it. The child is swallowed up in the darkness of it. They never make normal developed life and always wonder why it is so much seems broken inside and can’t ever seem to grasp it. Desperate to be loved they love not themselves.

  11. Bobbie Bees says:

    William Donohue says that the catholic church doesn’t need altar boys?
    Could have fooled me.
    Seems the church is in this trouble because some of it’s employees couldn’t get enough of the altar boys.

  12. deeplybetrayed says:

    Re: “Donahue …church doesn’t need altar boys”.
    Internet child porn is most likely filling the vacancy (and need)unless they are able to travel to “third-world” countries where the majority of the populations are under the age of 30 because of AIDS, etc.

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