Monday, January 9, 2012

SNAP Faces Subpoenas, Kansas City Star Calls For Overturning "Chilling" Court Order

At the end of a posting last Thursday, I noted the situation now facing the group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) in Missouri, where subpoenas have been issued in both Kansas City and St. Louis, demanding that the group's leaders turn over private communications between themselves and survivors of childhood sexual abuse.  This weekend, the Kansas City Star published a strong editorial about the situation, which characterizes a recent ruling of Jackson Co. judge Ann Mesle demanding that SNAP turn over to the court private communications with abuse survivors as "harmful and wrong." The Star editorial notes that  the Missouri Press Association has filed an amicus brief regarding Mesle's court order, which maintains that "[i]t would chill future news gathering. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that news gathering is protected under the First Amendment."

Here's a rough chronology of this developing situation, with links to valuable commentary:

At National Catholic Reporter, Joshua McElwee has reported on the situation in Kansas City from the end of December, when Judge Mesle ordered SNAP to be deposed on 2 January, and to disclose communications sought by the defendant's attorneys as he did so.  As McElwee noted following the 2 January deposition, David Clohessy of SNAP refused to hand over some of the requested communications as he deposed, and SNAP now faces penalties for resisting the court order.

The Kansas City developments were followed immediately by a similar court order in St. Louis, involving a now 19-year old abuse victim who has been assisted by SNAP official Barbara Dorris.  McElwee reports on this situation several days ago, indicating that Dorris has now received a subpoena almost identical to the one issued to Clohessy in Kansas City and demanding the same unprecedented access to SNAP's private communications going back almost 25 years.  

As I noted in my posting Thursday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published an editorial about the subpoena to Dorris on 5 January,  pointing to the similarity of what the editorial calls a "legal assault" in both Kansas City and St. Louis on SNAP.  The Post-Dispatch editorial predicts that what is happening in the two Missouri cities will result in protracted and expensive legal battles for the survivors' advocacy group, reducing the effectiveness of its efforts to assist victims of childhood sexual abuse, and causing those who may want to come forth with reports of their abuse to fear that their stories will be made public when they have sought confidentiality.

In various press statements, SNAP has been noting that the privacy rights of many groups are at stake in this legal battle. Church officials are insisting that the group hand over to them letters and emails to and from journalists, police, prosecutors, whistleblowers, lawyers and witnesses--not just abuse victims.

In the first McElwee article to which I link above, noted legal scholar Marci Hamilton suggests that the outcome of the two legal subpoenas will be to have "a huge chilling effect on helping child sex abuse victims at every stage."  Hamilton, who has assisted survivors of childhood sexual abuse and written extensively on this topic, says that the tactics now being employed in the two cases by lawyers defending Catholic clergy are "one of the uglier moves I’ve seen by any organization in these cases so far."

For those following these legal developments, the SNAP website now has a helpful resource providing links to news coverage of the situation, SNAP statements about the subpoenas, documents SNAP has filed in both cases, and details about the Kansas City and St. Louis cases and how they differ.  News coverage of the story has now gone national in media outlets beyond the Catholic press, including Time magazine, which published an article about the Kansas City story on 3 January.

As I noted in my comments last week about the subpoena issued to David Clohessy, I view what's being done to SNAP in Kansas City and St. Louis by Catholic officials (since, after all, the lawyers in both cases are working for church officials) as a conspicuously ugly hardball legal game designed to smear SNAP and undermine its reputation, and to make victims of childhood sexual abuse anywhere in the U.S. afraid to come forward with their stories.

I see the willingness of the church hierarchy to play these hardball legal games as all about protecting the church's assets and tamping down lawsuits by survivors.  It's about using the church's huge bank accounts and overweening power to threaten and intimidate groups who advocate for survivors of sexual abuse.

In my view, the situation facing SNAP in Missouri can well result in precedent-setting collateral damage that will have implications for other cases in which those who are abused in various ways lose the privacy on which they depend for safety and healing.  For instance, if the legal actions being taken against SNAP succeed, it's possible to imagine a physically abusive husband now likely being emboldened to seek records from the domestic violence shelter where his battered wife sought refuge, or an aggressive rapist now insisting on deposing the staff of a rape crisis center where his victim sought counseling.

And none of these points must be lost sight of, as the many Catholics who have never intended to make any place in their midst for survivors of clerical sexual abuse and who collude with the bishops in attacking survivors jump with joy that SNAP finds itself in this uncomfortable legal situation.  These heartless and mean-spirited Catholics are plastering Catholic blog sites with comments about how SNAP has insisted that church leaders be transparent, but SNAP officials resist transparency when the same demand is made of them.

What this argument based on false equivalency overlooks is that Catholic officials have never disclosed any documents at all from their own files except after concerted, expensive, long-drawn out legal action on the part of many groups (and the media) fighting for disclosure of church records.  And what has been disclosed up to this point from diocesan files and those of religious communities is only a tiny portion of the records thought to exist in those files.

SNAP and other groups assisting survivors of childhood sexual abuse and the Catholic church are not and never have been on anything approaching a fair playing field when it comes to the disclosure of records and accountability.  The resources available to Catholic leaders in these legal battles come from a seemingly bottomless pool of money.  SNAP and other survivor-advocacy groups operate with limited funds that come almost exclusively from donations.  SNAP does not own the amount of real estate or have the bank accounts that a single Catholic diocese or religious community possesses.

It also does not enjoy the reputation that Catholic leaders have, up to the recent past, enjoyed--and so it lacks the clout in the media and courtrooms that the Catholic hierarchy has long had.  This is changing, admittedly, as the hierarchy exposes itself in one case after another as lacking in moral sensitivity and as shockingly unconcerned for the well-being of children exposed to sexual predators.  

And as that shift occurs, groups like SNAP, groups working to assist victims of childhood sexual abuse, claim more and more attention and more moral authority.  Church officials do not like this.  They do not intend for this development to go unchallenged.

And they are willing to use unprincipled hardball legal tactics to smear groups working to assist survivors of childhood sexual abuse--even if that means eliciting fear among others who may wish to come forth with their stories and seek support.  Or perhaps that final clause should read "especially if that means eliciting fear among others . . . ."

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