Church’s Lawyers Have SNAP in Their Sights

In October, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), the oldest, largest, and most visible peer counseling group for victims of clergy sex abuse in any denomination, received a subpoena from a Kansas City, Missouri, priest being prosecuted for sexually abusing an older male victim SNAP has never met. The subpoena demanded a sweeping range of documents and correspondence concerning thousands of the estimated 100,000-plus people SNAP has counseled over two decades.

In December, the group received a second subpoena from the other side of the state, from the Archdiocese of St. Louis, facing its own charges concerning the alleged abuse of a 19-year-old woman. SNAP has fought the requests, citing Missouri laws protecting the privacy of rape survivors, and describing the records-request as a coordinated Church effort to bully sex abuse victims into silence and harass a longtime opponent into bankruptcy.

While the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has denied that there is a national strategy for the Church to fight sex abuse cases more aggressively, even the Church’s staunchest defenders see the pattern. As William Donohue, the pugilistic president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, told the New York Times this week, bishops are going after SNAP because “SNAP is a menace to the Catholic Church.”

SNAP’s national director David Clohessy spoke to Religion Dispatches about the two cases (see a timeline with documents here) and what turning over their files could mean for victim advocacy.


RD: How did these cases get started?

DC: It started in late October with a subpoena from the lawyer for an accused priest in Kansas City. In St. Louis, it came from lawyers for the Archdiocese. I think the Kansas City bishop is going to say this is just an individual priest and his individual defense lawyer and I can’t tell him how to defend himself in court. But from my perspective that’s a distinction without a difference. I believe this is clearly a decision on the part of both of these bishops. It’s harassment.

What are they going after?

The shortest way I can say it is they want all emails and records we have that mention every case, living or dead, accused or not, religious order or diocesan, in either of these dioceses, whether the communications are to and from victims, witnesses, whistleblowers, police, prosecutors, or journalists. And everything on repressed memory.

To show you how wide-ranging this is, we could have a letter in our files from 1990 from a woman in Miami who was molested in Arkansas by a priest who later went to Alaska, and she could have told no one and all parties could be dead. But if it’s in our files from 1990, we’re supposed to turn that over to the other side.

Why not release them?

First of all, people expect and we had promised that when they come to us for help, their privacy will be protected. For the most part, these are victims. They have suffered enough. And because anyone who is investigating, prosecuting, or exposing horrific child sex crimes should be encouraged and protected, not attacked and frightened. We believe that every organization and agency that works to prevent crimes or help victims should be very scared of the chilling effect of this.

Why do you think they are doing this?

What they’re trying to do is to discredit, derail, bankrupt, and silence SNAP. And to scare anyone—police, prosecutors, victims, concerned Catholics—from contacting us and reporting crimes and exposing corruption.

What they have said in court filings is we’re trying to get to the truth of this case. But if you think about it, the easiest way to get to the truth of John Doe BP v. Fr. Michael Tierney and the Kansas City Diocese and Jane Doe v. Fr. Joseph D. Ross and the St. Louis Archdiocese is to depose the parties, the people involved, John Doe and Jane Doe. And they haven’t even tried. In both cases, they haven’t even sought the records. In essence they’re using these two court cases as a ruse and a weapon.

What do you think they would do with the records?

Our fear is that they would share them with bishops and defense lawyers for predator priests all over the country, warning them that this victim has been in touch with SNAP—look out. This is speculation, admittedly, but for example, a victim could have said in an email that the priest drove a light blue car. In a criminal trial, the predator’s defense lawyer will ask what color car, and they might say dark blue, and they’ll pounce on that. That’s how you defend the indefensible. By picking away and trying to find even the tiniest inconsistencies. We’ve seen it happen in criminal and civil cases.

Would sharing the documents like that be legal?

That remains to be seen. We could certainly ask for a protection order, but to be honest, we don’t have a lot of confidence that they’ll play by the rules. They could also go in the other direction, and use the files to head off prosecutions in other states by reaching out to victims, sweet talking them, offering therapy, claiming their predators are old, sick, or senile. So they can use both carrot and stick with that kind of information.

Even if they got the records and burned them, it will have an extraordinary chilling effect. I’ve already had dozens of people—victims, journalists, Catholics—say to me, I’m not emailing you anymore and don’t you email me.

The first call I got after my deposition was made public was from a concerned Catholic layperson. He had sent us a document because he thought his bishop was being deceitful in his public statements about a clergy sex abuse case. It wasn’t confidential and it had circulated in his parish, but he called me several times, leaving increasingly urgent messages. When I called him back the first thing he said to me was, “Do you remember what I told you about my wife? She works for a parish. And if my emails to you are given to Church defense lawyers, she’s fired.”

Do you see this as escalating aggression in Church defense tactics?

Yes. How can bishops publicly proclaim to be compassionate shepherds and yet behave in court just like any corporate CEO? It’s rank hypocrisy, and it’s beyond that because it’s essentially a bait and switch, in that bishops say publicly to victims, come forward and get help, yet when victims do get help, by emailing us or calling the police or meeting with a DA, now Church officials say give us every shred of paper.

Is that why SNAP sought rape crisis center designation?

I would say we’re not seeking it but simply saying that Missouri law on sex crimes is clear. It says “any agency, public or private” that offers help to rape victims must protect their privacy. We don’t have an option. While the public perception of SNAP may not square exactly with the public perception of a rape crisis center—we don’t have a physical building, for example—what matters is what the law says.

Even if we were able to protect the privacy of every single victim, we’re still worried sick about the concerned Catholics, the police, the prosecutors, the journalists, the whistleblowers.

Can you run down the repercussions this group might face?

It’s hard to imagine all the ramifications, but I think the biggest are threefold. One, people who investigate, prosecute and expose child sex crimes and cover-ups, whether they’re police, prosecutors, or journalists, will be deterred or hampered instead of helped and encouraged. Even something as innocuous as an email from a police chief to rape crisis groups, someone with a political agenda could take that email and say this is an improper use of tax funding. Journalists might be less willing to contact victims’ groups, in case some flippant comment is later taken out of context.

Two, people who report known or suspected crimes, not just child sex, not just by clergy but crimes period, will be much more reluctant to do so, in case they end up deposed in some lawsuit they can’t even foresee.

And three, people who have been deeply hurt and many who are still hurting will be hurt and betrayed further.

What did the lawyers ask you about when you were deposed?

Here’s a fascinating thing: in the deposition that arose out of the Kansas City case, the very last question in six and a half hours of deposition was whether I had had any contact with John Doe BP. And you know who asked it? My lawyer.

[The Church’s lawyers] asked all about what records we had, where they are, who sees them, how we regard them, who gives us money—how SNAP operates and who SNAP communicates with. And they asked me a huge chunk of questions designed to imply that clergy sex victims are not entitled to the same protection under Missouri law that rape victims are because SNAP is not, they claim, a rape crisis center.

What they said, you’ll see in the deposition, is “Mr. Clohessy, we’re not trying to find out who gives to your organization or who your organization helps or who you’ve been in touch with. We’re not trying to get victims names.” And yet they spent a huge chunk of the deposition trying to eviscerate SNAP’s protection under the rape crisis law.

Have there been comparable cases of a defendant trying to get this information about people who might seek to bring lawsuits against them in the future?

Initially our lawyers said to us, there’s nothing new under the sun, everything’s been litigated somewhere. Then they began saying to us, there aren’t a lot of rapists who have tried to get the records from the rape crisis center that their victim went to. There aren’t a lot of wife-beaters that try to get the records from the domestic violence shelter where their wife took refuge. This is apparently a relatively untested part of the law.

The example that sprung to mind, and that we used in our case, is Supreme Court case NAACP vs. Alabama from 1958, where the state of Alabama said we need the NAACP membership lists. We’ve cited that case and made the same arguments, that to pry into the communications records and membership lists of a nonprofit support and advocacy group, regardless of the motives or possible outcomes, is on its face a violation of freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of privacy.

In the Times piece, SNAP was characterized as a key target for the Church.

We are pro-child, anti-abuse, anti-cover-up and pro-prevention. We have in our membership rabid atheists and daily Mass goers. We take no position on any organization, philosophy, denomination or spiritual beliefs, and we never will, because we want to be a safe welcoming place for the Methodist mom who sees her pastor acting inappropriately, the coach who suspects his assistant is spending too much time around kids and the woman who was sexually assaulted as a kid by a nun.

We’re about 90% AA and 10% Mothers Against Drunk Driving. 90% of what we do is pure and simple support and recovery, and 10% is public education and public advocacy.

The overwhelming majority of people who seek our help never speak publicly, call police, file lawsuits or criticize a single church employee. So it’s just so disingenuous and inaccurate to claim we’re somehow attacking the Church. Although I think it’s a very clever PR move to question the motives of those you don’t like.

Bill Donahue sees a criminal prosecution or a civil lawsuit as an angry threat when the overwhelming amount of victims see those as the best way to warn people about dangerous predators and in most instances, the only way.

Where do things stand now?

We have pro-bono lawyers in Kansas City, not yet in St. Louis. There’s a hearing on April 20 in Kansas City on the Church’s motion to compel, seeking to make SNAP turn over more records and make me answer more questions. Sometime before then we’ll file a motion, repeating our arguments about freedom of press and association and privacy and Missouri’s rape crisis law.