Judge Orders Archdiocese to Turn over Names of Priests Accused of Abuse
By Doug Moore
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
December 31, 2013
|Joseph Ross, former pastor at St. Cronan Church in St. Louis, in August 2002 became the first priest from the St. Louis archdiocese laicized, or defrocked, for abusing minors. — Handout Photo|
A judge has ordered the Archdiocese of St. Louis to release by the end of the working day Friday the names of all priests accused of sexual abuse in the past 20 years.
Under the order, the names of those who made the complaints also would be turned over.
But St. Louis Circuit Judge Robert Dierker said the archdiocese could withhold the names of those involved in cases the church determined were “unsubstantiated,” making it unclear exactly what the archdiocese will ultimately release from 234 complaints identified by the court.
Dierker has been trying for six months to get the archdiocese to turn over the information as part of a civil suit against Joseph Ross — the first priest defrocked here — as the child abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church has continued to play out in court.
On Tuesday, Dierker expressed his discontent with the delay.
“The dogged refusal of defendant Archdiocese to comply with the Court’s orders has inflicted unnecessary trouble and expense on plaintiff, manifestly interfered with trial preparation, and borders on if not actually amounting to contempt,” Dierker wrote. “The Court cannot condone such behavior.”
The names of those involved in the complaints will be kept under seal, available only to the victim, known in court papers as Jane Doe, and her attorneys.
The suit, which also names Archbishop Robert Carlson and the archdiocese, was filed in 2011 by a 19-year-old woman. She alleges that Ross began abusing her 16 years ago at St. Cronan’s Church, in the city’s Forest Park Southeast neighborhood.
“While the identities of persons involved in prior complaints might be irrelevant in the ordinary case,” Dierker wrote in his ruling, “the special circumstances of the claim against defendant in this context compel the conclusion that plaintiff must be able to probe the facts of similar prior complaints to some extent, in order to be able to present a convincing case of intentional failure to supervise.”
Dierker also gave a boost to the plaintiff’s case with what he called a partial judgment. He agreed with the plaintiff that the archdiocese had knowledge that “harm was certain or substantially certain to result from the assignment of ex-Rev. Ross to St. Cronan’s parish” and that the archdiocese “shall not be permitted to contest that issue at trial.”
Ross had been convicted of sexually assaulting an 11-year-old boy at a parish in University City decades before he allegedly began abusing the woman who has brought the current suit. Ross was sent away for treatment, then reassigned to St. Cronan’s. Years later, additional abuse allegations were made.
The lawsuit alleges that there was a pattern by the archdiocese of covering up abuse claims and that church leaders knew that failing to disclose past problems could cause new ones.
The latest ruling in the lengthy court battle is an obvious win for the woman, victim advocates say. Forcing the release of the names to the plaintiff will allow her to show that this was not a “one-time aberration,” said David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
But it’s far from a sweeping victory in efforts to fully disclose the magnitude of abuse in the Catholic Church, Clohessy said. He added that he was “a little troubled by” the part of Dierker’s ruling that allows the archdiocese to withhold the names of priests involved in cases the church investigated and deemed “unsubstantiated.”
But one of the attorneys for the woman who filed suit against Ross said he was pleased with the order.
“The fact that it is limited to clergy who have been credibly accused is still a broad order, and what’s important is to find a pattern of other incidents where priests have abused children that the archdiocese knew about and put the priests in a place where they could abuse children again,” said attorney Kenneth M. Chackes.
The archdiocese limited its comments to an email statement issued by spokesman Angie Shelton.
“The Archdiocese of St. Louis will review with its attorneys today’s court order for the release of identities of victims and accused clergy dating back many years that involve any substantiated allegation of sexual abuse.”
The trial is set for late February. Chackes said Dierker’s ruling on Tuesday would indicate that the date would remain set.
“He has been ordering the (archdiocese) to produce this information since May,” Chackes said. “I think it’s very unlikely he will allow any further delay.”
Dierker’s order states that by 5 p.m. Friday, the archdiocese shall turn over the information. His order also stresses that neither the plaintiff nor her attorneys can directly contact those who filed the complaints. A court-appointed attorney, referred to as a special master, will make the initial contact to see if the alleged victims want to cooperate in the case.
Chackes stressed that the names of those who filed complaints would not be dragged into the courtroom.
“Even if the case goes to trial, the names of victims will not be revealed,” he said.
Dierker expressed displeasure with the secrecy surrounding the case.
“The Court wonders when the trend toward secret litigation will come to an end,” Dierker wrote in his 13-page ruling. “The Court recognizes that sexual abuse allegations are embarrassing to accuser and accused alike; but the courts are supposed to be open and public.”
That said, “the Court will not, however, undertake a resolution of this problem in this case at this time.”