Archdiocese of St. Louis Still Must Turn over Abuse Records, Appeals Court Rules
By Jennifer S. Mann
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
January 10, 2014
|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.|
ST. LOUIS • The Archdiocese of St. Louis must release two decades worth of sexual abuse allegations against its priests, an appellate court ordered Thursday.
But no sooner had the Missouri Court of Appeals court issued its ruling than the archdiocese announced its intent to take the matter to the Missouri Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, the issue goes back to St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Robert Dierker, who has already rapped the archdiocese for missing two previous deadlines he set for releasing the material.
At issue are 234 complaints made against 115 priests. The records are sought as part of a 2011 suit filed on behalf a then-19-year-old woman, who said she was sexually abused from 1997-2001 by the since-defrocked Rev. Joseph Ross.
Many of the names and corresponding records fall under a protective order, for lawyers’ eyes only. But the release of the documents — unprecedented in St. Louis — could give rise to further legal claims.
“We’re very pleased with (the decision),” said Ken Chackes, an attorney for the woman publicly known only as Jane Doe. “It fully supported Judge Dierker’s decision, which we thought was fair and reasonable.”
Attorneys for the archdiocese sought the appellate court’s intervention Jan. 3, the day of Dierker’s latest deadline. In filings, they called his order “pure error and a clear abuse of discretion.” The appeals court then granted a temporary stay.
But in a brief order Thursday, Eastern District Appellate Judge Glenn Norton wrote that Dierker’s order “adequately addressed” privacy concerns voiced by the archdiocese, and found that the documents are relevant to the civil claim being made.
Norton’s order notes that the archdiocese should not be treated differently from any other litigant.
A spokeswoman for the archdiocese, Angie Shelton, responded with a statement saying, “We respect the trial court’s efforts to build mechanisms to address these challenging issues, but we continue to disagree that an unprecedented invasion of third parties’ lives is warranted.”
She added, “The fact that the appeal was initially granted shows how difficult this issue is for all involved, the parties and the courts.”
The plaintiff’s lawyers believe the documents will show the archdiocese had a pattern of ignoring problems within the church and knew of the risk in assigning Ross to St. Cronan’s Parish in the city’s Forest Park Southeast neighborhood.
He previously had been convicted of sexually abusing an 11-year-old boy at a University City parish and was sent away for treatment. He was then reassigned to St. Cronan’s, where he allegedly abused Doe from 1997 to 2001.
Attorneys for the archdiocese had argued that releasing the names of the accusers would “be harmful to them” based on “unrebutted evidence from expert medical professions.” They also voiced concern that the plaintiff’s lawyers, if given the names of victims, could cause emotional damage by stirring up traumatic memories.
Doe’s attorneys had asked for the names of all priests and lay employees accused of sexual abuse here in the past 40 years. Dierker initially limited the time frame to 20 years, then modified it to eliminate the requirement pertaining to nonclergy employees.
The archdiocese so far has only release a so-called “matrix” of the 234 complaints dating to 1986, which identifies accusers and the 115 accused by numbers only, without any other specifics, such as the priests’ assignments within the archdiocese.
Some employees were named on multiple complaints, including two who had 15.
Dierker’s order allows the archdiocese to withhold records pertaining to 40 of those complaints that the archdiocese deemed “unsubstantiated.” But Chackes said most of those relate to priests who will be named through other, substantiated claims.
The order also stresses that neither the plaintiff nor her attorney can directly contact those who filed the complaints. A court-appointed attorney will make the initial contact to see whether victims want to cooperate. The trial date is Feb. 24.
Dierker has awarded the plaintiff an early victory as far as compensatory damages, by issuing a partial judgment that determined the archdiocese did know of the risk in assigning Ross to St. Cronan’s.
He also fined the archdiocese for its delays.
“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.”
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a victims’ advocacy group, said 115 is more than double the number of previously known alleged abusers in the archdiocese.
David Clohessy of St. Louis, SNAP’s director, said in a statement Thursday: “We are grateful that this brave young woman is persisting and that the appeals court says Catholic officials must follow the same rules as other defendants in child sex abuse cases.”