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SNAP order could chill abuse cases, advocates.

KANSAS CITY, HO. * A Missouri judge's decision to go forward in seeking a wide range of documents from the leading advocacy group for clergy sex abuse victims could have far-reaching consequences for survivors' support organizations, say victims' advocates and lawyers.

Among those consequences, experts tell NCR, could be a "chilling effect" on victims willing to come forward to report abuse and a bogging down of criminal and civil cases across the country against abusers in both the church and wider society.

Experts' worries stem from Jackson County Mo., Circuit Court Judge Ann Mesle's most recent order to the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) in a case concerning a local priest accused of abuse. The case, in which SNAP is not a party, made headlines in January when it became the first in which one of the group's leaders was ordered to provide testimony.

Following back-and-forth filings from SNAP lawyers and those defending Kansas City-St. Joseph diocesan priest Fr. Michael Tierney, Mesle ordered SNAP in late April to make available to the priest's lawyers 23 years of internal files and correspondence.

Victims' advocates and lawyers contacted by NCR outlined worries about the latest move in the case, in which Mesle ordered SNAP to make available to defense lawyers almost all files the group has pertaining to "sexual and other misconduct of priests" in the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese.

One lawyer who has served as counsel for victims in a number of such cases, Marci Hamilton, said the potential legal precedents set by the case could effectively mean that groups that help victims are "no longer going to be able to."

"What we're talking about is the end of one of the few sources of comfort in our society for victims," said Hamilton, a professor at New York's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University.

The decision concerns those working with victims nationwide, said Jeffrey Dion, deputy executive director for the National Center for Victims of Crime, "because it has a tremendous chilling effect on the ability of grassroots organizations made up of volunteers to help victims."

Mesle's order, first handed down at a contentious four-hour hearing April 20, was formally filed April 25. It reaffirms a previous document request order issued to SNAP last fall, narrowing slightly the scope of requested files.

In addition, she also ordered David Clohessy, SNAP'S director and the subject of the January deposition, to undergo a second deposition, saying he refused to answer many of the questions the first time and that it "needs to be continued and finished."

The eight categories of requested SNAP files include: all correspondence with members of the press mentioning either Tierney or the diocese; all documents referring to priests currently or formerly associated with the diocese; and all correspondence with members of the public "that discusses or relates to repressed memory in conjunction with cases involving" the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese.

While SNAP is expected to appeal Mesle's order, the head of one prominent victims' support organization said he is concerned the case could signify a "terrible, terrible judicial precedent."

"If every survivor is afraid that just by reaching out to an organization they could be at risk to be exposed, it's going to have such a chilling effect on our ability to connect and have contact with survivors and get them the help that they need," said Chris Anderson, the executive director of Male Survivor.

The document requests came after Tierney's defense lawyers argued that SNAP could be inappropriately coaching victims it helps regarding issues of repressed memory. While the alleged abuse in the Kansas City case occurred about 40 years ago, the victim has said his memory regarding the event only returned in recent years, within the time frame of Missouri's statute of limitations for abuse lawsuits.

At the April 20 hearing, Brian Madden, one of Tierney's lawyers, said he and his colleagues need access to the documents in order to "test the credibility of the allegations of abuse as well as the allegations of repressed memory."

The plaintiffs lawyer has said SNAP has had no contact with her client. Opening SNAP'S files could mean information from victims who have contacted the group but not filed lawsuits would be available. In a spring interview, Clohessy told NCR that "the overwhelming majority" of victims the group has dealt with "never consider or take legal action or go public."

A second order from Mesle April 25 stipulates that all documents obtained from SNAP will be kept confidential and in the possession of SNAP lawyers.

Dion said the wide request of documents might indicate the beginnings of a new strategy among church lawyers in their attempts to preempt lawsuits accusing priests of abuse.

Referring to the fact that several bishops' conferences at the state level have publicly opposed measures that would change state laws regarding the statutes of limitations in abuse cases, Dion said this move by Tierney's lawyers could be part of a broader realization by the church that "the best way that they can protect themselves from lawsuits is if they can keep them from being brought in the first place" by "scaring" groups who would encourage victims to pursue the cases in court.

'What we're talking about is the end of one of the few sources of comfort in our society for victims.'
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Title Annotation:Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
Author:McElwee, Joshua J.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1U4MO
Date:May 25, 2012
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