|Priest Abuse Documents Get Final Edit
By Bill Dries
July 25, 2009
Thousands of pages of court records about allegations of child sexual abuse by Memphis Catholic priests could be released by the end of the summer. But much debate remains about whose names will be blacked out and whose won't.
The Daily News and The Commercial Appeal earlier this year sought to gain access to documents in the John Doe civil claim against the Catholic Diocese of Memphis.
The motion to intervene was granted after the diocese and the Dominican religious order reached a $2 million settlement in the fraudulent concealment case involving claims of child sexual abuse by a priest.
Circuit Court Judge Charles O. McPherson has reviewed suggested redactions and last week began deciding what will remain in the record. In instances where the names of priests are removed, their alleged conduct will be made public.
McPherson conceded that some of his decisions are likely to be appealed.
Casey Shannon, attorney for the diocese, said the church's standard was to redact names and other information that could identify priests in instances where there was "no finding of guilt." To do otherwise, he said, would cause them "undue embarrassment."
But Richard Hollow, the attorney for The Commercial Appeal, argued that by that standard "only a civil verdict which survives on appeal or an indictment would suffice as a predicate for releasing of the names."
None of the civil cases in Circuit Court naming six priests has gone to trial. Some have been settled. Others have been dismissed. No criminal charges have been filed against any Memphis priests for child sexual abuse.
"We have an opportunity here to enhance our understanding of a situation which is tragic beyond all human measure," Hollow argued. "We also have the opportunity to exercise what your honor well knows the legal system provides – a deterrent. … We have to acknowledge that there is a deterrent … from the threat of exposure."
Hollow said there might be some "collateral exposure" of other priests.
"It is necessary for the public's understanding of this situation that we have the broadest and fullest disclosure we can get," he said.
"There doesn't need to be collateral damage," Shannon countered. "It is imminently avoidable."
"There was enough evidence to convince the bishop that the allegations were probably true. But nothing ever came of it," McPherson said as he asked Shannon about one series of redactions. "Should he have the protection of this order?"
"I believe so, when the accuser never comes forward," Shannon replied. "Yes, the bishop maintains that something might have happened. But a 'might' isn't a 'likely did happen.' In that case, I don't think it would be fair."
Who stays, who goes
Depositions in the case with top-ranking diocesan officials, including Bishop J. Terry Steib, dealt with allegations that the Rev. Juan Carlos Duran sexually abused a 14-year-old boy in 2000. Duran and diocesan officials admitted the abuse.
The allegations and the diocesan response were the basis for the civil lawsuit filed in 2004 when the boy turned 18. The depositions also included testimony about other allegations of child sexual abuse by priests and how the church responded to them.
Attorneys for the diocese proposed redacting the name of the Rev. Richard Mickey, a priest accused in a 2004 civil suit by Blain and Blair Chambers. The diocese settled the suit after a deposition from another man claimed he and Mickey had been a "couple" while the man was a senior at Memphis Catholic High School and Mickey was a priest.
Mickey was the pastor of the parish where Duran met the boy he abused. The boy and his family reported the abuse to Mickey, who advised them not to contact civil authorities for possible criminal charges.
McPherson ruled Mickey's name should not be redacted in court records opened to The Daily News and Commercial Appeal.
"There has not been a determination of guilt," Shannon said of Mickey.
"Who is supposed to be making these determinations?" asked Paul Billings, The Daily News' attorney. "(The diocese) basically get to control the information. They are the gatekeepers, saying, 'We don't think there's anything there.'"
McPherson repeated his ruling that Mickey's name will not be redacted.
Smoke and fire
The judge upheld blacking out the name of a priest accused of sexual abuse by a man he identified as a "cleaning man" who apparently also had a claim against the diocese related to his job. McPherson said there was no proof of abuse and that the allegation amounted to "sour grapes."
Other priests are referred to by Roman numerals and letters in court documents.
"VII – I've got some mixed feelings about that priest," McPherson said. "That's one of those there's some smoke there and you don't have smoke without some kind of fire. I see no basis for a redaction."
A court order on the redactions is expected next month.
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