Newspaper Moves to Open Priest Abuse Records

By Bill Dries
The Daily News
March 19, 2009

The Daily News has filed a motion to intervene in a Circuit Court lawsuit alleging child sexual abuse by a Memphis Catholic priest.

The newspaper is seeking to open records in the recently settled John Doe lawsuit filed against the Catholic Diocese of Memphis, The Dominican religious order and Father Juan Carlos Duran.

Duran sexually abused John Doe when Doe was 14 years old.

The boy and his family reported the abuse to diocesan officials, who suspended Duran and sent him for treatment to a medical facility in Baltimore. Duran left the priesthood and Memphis.

No one reported the incident to authorities outside the church.

Attorneys for the diocese acknowledged that Duran’s pastor at Church of the Ascension, Father Richard Mickey, urged the family not to report the abuse to authorities.

When the boy turned 18, in 2004, he filed the civil lawsuit. Mickey himself was accused of similar abuse in an unrelated civil case the diocese also settled for an undisclosed amount.

Public interest

The diocese and the Dominicans settled the Duran lawsuit last month for a combined $2 million just days before the case was to go to trial before a jury.

The newspaper motion says the “numerous sealed documents are of great public interest, and seeks access to the sealed records so that (The Daily News) can disseminate information about involved, non-minor parties to the public.”

The motion specifically seeks to modify “protective orders to obtain access to judicial proceedings or records.” The protective orders were issued as the case moved from Judge James Russell, who recused himself because he knew a potential witness, to Judge Rita Stotts, who died Jan. 2. Retired Judge Charles McPherson has been appointed a special judge in the case. His jurisdiction over the Duran case will continue even if Gov. Phil Bredesen appoints someone to fill Stotts’ position before the case’s final disposition.

The Daily News motion was filed March 2. The records include depositions given by diocesan and Dominican officials not only about Duran’s abuse of the teenage boy, but how the church handled other allegations of child sexual abuse in the Memphis diocese.

In a pretrial hearing open to the public last month, an attorney for the diocese said 15 Memphis priests have been accused of child sexual abuse since the Diocese of Memphis was formed in 1971.

The attorney also acknowledged that its policy in dealing with such cases in the past had been to transfer priests to other church provinces and not tell church leaders in those areas of the problems. The priests were not named in the hearing.

Six priests, including Duran, have been publicly accused in civil lawsuits filed since 2004 in Shelby County Circuit Court. The diocese publicly acknowledged before the lawsuits began that seven Memphis priests had been accused in complaints to church officials.

“As we’ve delved deeper into the story, we’ve determined that there is more to find and more to reveal,” said Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News and The Memphis News. “The sheer scope of what happened in this case is worth the effort to try and produce more details.”

The Duran case was one of several child sexual abuse cases featured in the Oct. 22-28, 2008, edition of The Memphis News,

Checkered past

Duran came to Memphis in 1999 as the first priest in the Diocese assigned specifically to minister to the city’s growing Hispanic population. Duran is from Bolivia. He had been a priest in the Franciscan order before becoming a Dominican.

Franciscan officials expelled him from the order because of allegations of child sexual abuse and warned Duran’s Dominican superiors before he came to Memphis, according to court documents not covered by the protective order that shielded other documents. The Dominicans never told diocesan officials in Memphis of Duran’s past and the allegations.

Memphis diocesan officials never got a required letter of good standing from Dominican officials before agreeing to accept and assign Duran to a Memphis parish. They also asked no questions about a gap in his resume that included his troubled tenure with the Franciscans and allegations of child sexual abuse in St. Louis, when he was a seminary student.

Duran began abusing John Doe soon after he came to Memphis. The abuse lasted for approximately six weeks before the boy’s mother discovered it and forced her son to tell her what had happened.

Crowbar of the law

Diocesan officials recently posted a notice on their Web site saying their “permanent records” of clergy are “governed by the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church.”

“In the unlikely event that there arises a conflict in the policy or procedures between the dictates of canon law and civil law, the canon law pertaining to the matter will prevail in the implementation of policy and procedures,” reads the statement dated March 20, 2008.

The motion to intervene cites the Tennessee Supreme Court ruling in the Ballard vs. Herzke case.

In that case, The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville challenged a protective order that sealed discovery documents in a civil lawsuit involving the Kirby Pines retirement community. Discovery is the process before trial when both sides reveal to each other the proof they have. Shelby County Chancellor Floyd Peete ruled and the Supreme Court upheld his ruling allowing the newspaper to intervene.

The Supreme Court ruling held that it is presumed once “plaintiffs settle … their interests in modifying the protective order would end.”

The argument in The Daily News motion is that records in the Duran lawsuit were sealed “and did not involve or require any specific proof of the need to seal the record as to the answer, deposition or motion sealed.”

“Only a party’s claim that such information was ‘confidential’ was sufficient to seal the record and limit disclosure of the information to the party, his or its attorneys, employees of the law firms representing the parties in the case, or a retained investigator or expert who had a need to see the information in order to perform his or her work on the case.”

The motion seeks to have McPherson determine with each document that was sealed “whether the closure is essential to preserve ‘higher values’ and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest.”


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.