Father Ryan's Yearbook Access
The Diocese Says Privacy Concerns - Not Fears of More Sex Abuse Allegations - Make Them Protective of Old Annuals
By John Spragens
January 12, 2006
On Thursday, Dec. 15, former Father Ryan High School student Mike Coode was kicked off his alma mater's campus. He and two women had stopped by to look at archived yearbooks from the mid-1950s - and, hopefully, to reproduce pages from them - when they were told that they could not take digital photos of the books, nor could they view them at all. In fact, after checking with principal Jim McIntyre, a development office administrator instructed the three to leave the premises immediately.
Coode was surprised but not shocked. After all, as a victim of long-ago sexual abuse by a Catholic priest, he's dealt with the Diocese of Nashville many times. On this occasion, he and two leaders of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) were hoping to find a picture of Coode at the age when he was being abused, as well as use the yearbooks to piece together old webs of classmates and priests who were suspected to have molested them. School officials, citing privacy concerns, said that wouldn't be an option.
But only weeks before, according to Coode and SNAP co-director Ann Brentwood, they had been welcomed at the Father Ryan development office and allowed to look through all available yearbooks. "If there had been cookies and coffee, we would have joined them for cookies and coffee," Brentwood says of the pair's amiable November visit. "It was a very relaxed, laid-back atmosphere."
"They couldn't have been more gracious," Coode agrees in a separate interview. He and Brentwood say they requested copies of some yearbook pages but were told the copy machine was of poor quality. "They suggested that we come back with a digital camera and take some photos," Brentwood says. "We left feeling very encouraged and welcomed by the staff."
On their Dec. 15 follow-up visit, Coode and Brentwood brought Susan Vance, the other SNAP director. Just like the first trip, they went straight to the development office on their unannounced visit, expecting that they would encounter no problems since they had been invited to return. When they arrived, they were ushered into a conference room, where they browsed yearbooks and made small talk with a development office worker.
Before long, Father Ryan development director Deb Fay came in and informed the group that, due to privacy concerns, they could look at old annuals but not take pictures of them. Eventually, they recall, she told them not to deal with the yearbooks at all. "We have a policy that third parties cannot look at - [it's] the privacy issue," Fay tells the Scene. "Since our new principal came in, he has looked at all of the things we've done," she says. "It was his recommendation and our attorney's that we...protect the privacy of our students and alumni." She reportedly told the three visitors that this policy was implemented by diocesan attorney Gino Marchetti.
Surprised, they asked her to get Marchetti on the phone but were soon told that he was unavailable. Fay told them that McIntyre, the principal, was the only person who could make an exception to the rule, so they asked to see him. Moments later, Fay returned and said that McIntyre was meeting with students and had asked that Coode, Brentwood and Vance leave the premises immediately. They packed their things and left.
According to diocesan spokesman Rick Musacchio, Coode "was asked to leave campus only after his behavior became exceptionally rude and disruptive to the campus environment when his request to make digital photographs of yearbooks was denied." But Coode, Brentwood and Vance insist that they all remained calm and cordial throughout the process - Coode was talking to someone on his cell phone for part of the time - and a school official confirms that the three were upset but not rude or disruptive. Indeed, the evictees used guilt, not anger, as a persuasive technique: "If you only knew what these people have gone through," the women told Fay.
In an email message, Musacchio says that diocesan policy is designed to protect students. "The Diocese of Nashville Schools Office has had a general policy for many years that requires that student information and records be protected as required by both state and federal laws and by a desire to respect the privacy of all of our students," he says. "While the specific details of access to yearbooks might differ from school to school, they share a common goal of protecting private information of all students, past and present. All of the schools recognize that the yearbooks are protected by copyright and are the property of the individual schools."
That's why, according to Musacchio, visitors who want to look through old yearbooks are asked to sign a form "identifying themselves, their reason for reviewing the material and acknowledging that the material is not available for publication without explicit written permission." He declined to provide the Scene with a copy of the form. When this newspaper contacted Father Ryan's development office last week, the woman who answered the phone said she would not be able to locate a copy of the form.
Coode, Brentwood and Vance say they were not asked or even given the opportunity to sign a form on either visit, nor was one mentioned. Furthermore, giving outsiders access to old yearbooks doesn't seem to be an issue for school officials: another Father Ryan alumnus, who contacted the school's development office at the Scene's request, says he was told he could bring his (non-alumnae) wife to look at old annuals without an appointment, as long as they first signed a consent form.
A handful of other private schools contacted by the Scene don't seem to share the Diocese's extensive privacy concerns. "As far as I know, we just let [alums] come up here and look at [yearbooks]," says Roddy Story of MBA's development office. "They can photocopy anything they want to. We even give them one if they need an extra one."
Officials at Franklin Road Academy and Brentwood Academy say that they would ask an alumnus who wanted to reproduce pages from a yearbook what their intentions were. Provided the yearbook wasn't being used for commercial gain, it wouldn't be a problem. "We would hate to see a page of our yearbook appear in an ad or even in a documentary without us knowing about it," says BA's Leah Hoskins. But theirs is "a very open kind of policy," she says. "We've never had a problem with it before."
FRA communications director Carleen Matthews agrees that modest oversight is important, but says that "You have to at some point in time trust your alums..."
"It is our position that we will not allow the republication of the contents of yearbooks or other publications without a clear understanding of where and how that material will be used," writes Musacchio, noting that Coode never called to schedule a meeting with McIntyre after being asked to leave campus. "That is a basic position of most institutions and publications including, I would expect, the Nashville Scene." Last year, the Scene ran photos from an old Father Ryan yearbook to accompany a story about a man who was sexually abused while a student there.
Coode says he just wanted a picture of himself during his high school days, when a priest named Roger Lott repeatedly molested him in the Cathedral rectory. "I have a vested interest [in Father Ryan] like every other Catholic in this diocese does," he says. "I support the school, and my two sons graduated from there, as did many nephews. And my picture is in there. I wanted a record of myself at the age when I was abused."
Brentwood and Vance, meanwhile, were hoping to use old yearbooks to find youthful pictures of victims who have come forward to their advocacy group. As Diocesan officials know, more victims means more SNAP press conferences outside Catholic headquarters and, potentially, more allegations and more lawsuits like the pair they just settled for over $1.2 million. As Musacchio frequently says in news stories, the Diocese has not received any credible, contemporary reports of abuse by anyone associated with the Diocese for almost two decades.
In an email explaining Father Ryan's yearbook policy, Musacchio writes, "The safety, including the privacy, of our students, past and present, is our chief concern."
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