|Judge: Church Sex
Abuse Victims May Be Identified
By Kay Luna
CLINTON, Iowa — The identities of victims who reported they were sexually abused by priests in the Catholic Diocese of Davenport must be disclosed in civil court, but only on a limited basis, under a Clinton County judge’s ruling.
After several months of weighing legal arguments regarding confidentiality and trial preparation concerns, District Judge C.H. Pelton ruled the names of several “John Doe” plaintiffs and people who have filed abuse complaints with the diocese should be reported to the parties and potential witnesses involved in multiple civil lawsuits in Clinton and Scott counties.
However, the ruling does not mean the names will be made public in court documents or at trial. Alleged abuse victims’ names will be removed from documents produced in court and changed to a pseudonym, number or letter.
Only the judge, plaintiffs and defendants, their attorneys and close staff members, expert witnesses and “a few other potential witnesses” will know the identities, the ruling states.
The judge forewarns that in the event of a trial, the plaintiffs’ and witnesses’ identities could become public during the court process. That’s why he will allow alleged victims to choose to keep their names confidential by filing a court-directed confidentiality request, which he will consider on a case-by-case basis.
“Exceptions will be granted,” he said.
The diocese faces 14 civil lawsuits filed in three counties, including Clinton and Scott, alleging sexual abuse of boys by priests in situations ranging from 20 to 50 years old.
In all the cases, the plaintiffs — nine of whom have been identified only as “John Doe,” and another as “Jack Doe” — claim church leaders failed to take action against the priests, even though they were aware of the inappropriate sexual contact.
In his ruling, Pelton, who presides over the cases, said he believes there are sound reasons for people, whether litigants or witnesses, to maintain their privacy after reporting abuse with an expectation of confidentiality.
However, he believes the limited identity disclosures in these cases are necessary for both sides “to conduct reasonable discovery and prepare for trial.”
“Access to such information may lead to admissible evidence not otherwise available,” the ruling states.
Diocese attorney Rand Wonio of Davenport said church officials already have handed out countless numbers of documents regarding the past 50 years’ worth of records about sex-abuse complaints in the diocese.
The attorney for a majority of the plaintiffs, Craig Levien of Davenport, said he also has disclosed the identities of his “John Doe” clients to the diocese since the first day the lawsuits were filed.
Levien said the ruling means the identities of the victims involved will be held confidential, “but won’t be held secret.”
“Now, the diocese has got to report the total number of victims and their identities — they can’t keep their identities secret to everyone,” Levien said.
Wonio said the diocese fought hard to prevent such disclosure because church officials worried that the victims’ names would be made public without their consent. The diocese now is in the process of contacting all the people who reported abuse in the past, asking if they want to fill out the judge’s form to remain confidential except to the judge, or if they are agreeable to having their names revealed in the manner ordered by the court.
“We’re writing to them as we speak,” Wonio said.
The diocese also is waiting to hear from the judge whether abuse records it turned over to the judge for his private review will be handed over to the plaintiffs.
The judge ordered the diocese to hand over the past 50 years’ worth of documents — including the identities of the victims reporting abuse — in a November ruling. The diocese attempted to appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court, but it declined to hear the case, bouncing it back to district court.
The diocese filed another request in December, asking the judge to reconsider his decision. In the end, the judge’s ruling shows a compromise by giving alleged victims a way to directly request confidentiality through the court.
Levien said he cannot conceive of any situation that would call for identities of the sex-abuse victims or witnesses to be made public in court, because the plaintiffs and the defense would not call for that.
“All we ever really wanted was for these people to have the opportunity to keep their identities private, if that’s what they wanted,” Wonio said. “Right now, we’re going to have to tell the court who they are, and that’s fine. That’s what we’ve been ordered to do, and that’s what we’ll do.”
This order will not immediately affect a new lawsuit filed this month
in Scott County by a plaintiff known only as “Jack Doe” against
the diocese and a former Bettendorf priest, the Rev. William Wiebler.
That case has not been consolidated yet into the cases that Pelton presides
over, the judge said.
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