Bishop Accountability

Expert calls Davenport priest-abuse case ruling 'extreme'
The unusual disclosure order may be used as a model in similar U.S. cases, a lawyer says

By Shirley Ragsdale
Des Moines Register
December 13, 2003

An Iowa judge's order that Davenport Catholic Diocese turn over 50 years of documents about abusive priests is rare and similar in scope to legal discovery ordered in Boston that prompted a nationwide priest scandal, experts say.

Roderick MacLeish, the lawyer credited with forcing the Boston archdiocese to disclose 40 years of secrecy and cover-up about child-molesting priests, said he believes this is only the second time in the country that a judge has ordered the Catholic Church to provide so much information to plaintiffs.

"I do not know the judge, but I admire his courage," MacLeish said. "To my knowledge, this is only the second time that a court has ordered the production of diocesan-wide records."

A law professor studying abuse litigation agreed that the ruling is rare.

Patrick Schiltz, professor at the St. Thomas School of Law, a Catholic law school in Minneapolis, defended churches in sexual abuse lawsuits before entering academia.

"Unless there is some evidence I am not aware of, the Clinton County order is . . . not consistent with what most judges have done in most cases," Schiltz said. "It is a highly unusual, very extreme ruling."

Iowa District Judge C.H. Pelton on Nov. 26 ruled that the diocese must provide to lawyer Craig Levien any church documents about abusive priests covering the past 50 years. Levien represents five of eight people who have sued the diocese, saying they were abused as children by their priests.

"This far-reaching, across-the-board order is necessary to let everyone know the true nature and extent of the problem in the Davenport diocese and the manner in which priests were assigned to new and different parishes," Levien said. "I believe the judge's ruling will be used as a model in all the other cases."

In response to Pelton's order, diocese officials are "in the process of examining 370 files of priests -alive, dead, who have left the priesthood -over the past 50 years," said Rand Wonio, one of the diocese's lawyers.

However, in a letter read Sunday in every church in the Davenport diocese, Bishop William Franklin said some of the requests for documents and information in the lawsuits are "excessive in scope."

The diocese has missed a deadline to submit a national survey of the same documents to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in part because of concern about whether those records would be sought in the lawsuits against the diocese.

"The order is important because it will likely lead to extraordinary revelations about the practices of the diocese," said MacLeish. "What we found in Boston is that there was a culture within this institution, which supported not only protecting priest child molesters, but in putting them back into ministry.

"There can be no reform within the Roman Catholic Church in America until all of the facts are known, as awful as they are to know," he said.

Schiltz said that under Pelton's ruling, the diocese now has the costly challenge of defending 50 years of decisions made by church officials, some of whom are long dead.

"The church is supposed to be judged by decisions made in cases of people who are suing now," Schiltz said. "If a jury has 50 years of garbage to sort through, it may make them mad and more likely to want to punish the diocese for what it did 30 years ago."

David Clohessy, executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a victims' advocacy group, applauded Pelton's ruling.

"This is a bitter fight all around the country," Clohessy said. "Despite all the promises of transparency and openness, Catholic church leaders fight tooth-and-nail to keep secrecy. That's because the documents almost always contain clear evidence church leaders knew about or suspected abuse and did very little."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' National Review Board has asked all dioceses to report all abuse cases since 1950 and calculate related costs for therapy and legal settlements with victims and attorney fees. The information submitted by each diocese will be kept confidential, although a broad summary of the information will be compiled by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and made public Feb. 27.

Three of Iowa's four dioceses have said they will make their survey information public. The Dubuque archdiocese and the Sioux City diocese will announce their survey results shortly after Christmas; the Des Moines diocese plans to release its report at the same time as the national report.

Wonio said the Davenport diocese has not made a decision about when or if it will submit its survey to the bishops.

Religion editor Shirley Ragsdale can be reached at (515) 284-8208 or


Original material copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.