By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 13, 2006
Promised anonymity in an $84 million settlement with a Kentucky Roman Catholic diocese, men and women sexually abused by its priests are opposing a state judge's order to reveal their identities and details of the alleged crimes to prosecutors.
The dispute, prompted by the judge's view that egregious cases of abuse may warrant criminal charges, raises complex privacy questions, and highlights the delicate balance between victims' rights and the responsibility of legal authorities to punish lawbreakers.
Stanley M. Chesley, a Cincinnati attorney for more than 300 men and women abused by priests in Kentucky as long ago as the 1950s, said the order from Special Judge John Potter came "out of the clear blue," several months after Potter approved the settlement. Chesley called the ruling "very callous, very broad and very frightening."
One of Chesley's clients said he thought hard before reporting the sexual abuse he suffered as a Catholic school student nearly 30 years ago. Until he filed, he had told no one -- not his wife, not his mother or siblings, not his best friend who attended the school with him, and certainly not his colleagues or his children.
"It took me forever to do it, because I can't afford to have my name or my identity exposed," said the man, who spoke in return for a promise of anonymity. "As a victim, I would be mortified if this were to happen. Put yourself in my shoes. I would be abused all over again."
Even now, his wife does not know the details of his experiences with a disgraced priest.
"It's something I basically buried for 25 to 30 years," he said.
In a hearing last month, Potter noted that the Diocese of Covington, which settled the lawsuit in January, is already sending information to prosecutors, who can then decide whether to seek further details, including the identities of the victims.
His order -- on hold for 60 days to allow time for an appeal -- requires the settlement supervisor to report "every act of suspected abuse" against a minor. The document must describe the circumstances, name the suspect and the victim, and provide the victim's address and telephone number.
The information is to remain private, the judge ruled, "except as necessary to investigate or prosecute a crime."
Prosecutors assured the judge that any investigative information delivered to them will be kept confidential.
"The judge's concern for innocent, vulnerable kids today is praiseworthy," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "But there's a critical difference between prodding and compelling. I worry tremendously about the potentially chilling effect."
The Covington settlement was designed to end several years of litigation amid deepening recriminations about the behavior of priests in dozens of Kentucky counties. About 350 men and women have presented evidence that they were abused between the 1950s and 1990s.
Victims, many now in their sixties and seventies, have come forward. They are expected to receive $5,000 to $1 million each, with amounts of more than $450,000 reserved for individuals seriously and repeatedly abused.
Cases are reviewed by two special masters: former E.W. Scripps Co. chairman William R. Burleigh and former chief U.S. district judge Thomas D. Lambros.
Before the diocese pledged $84 million to settle the class action, it had paid $10.8 million to settle 58 previous cases.
"Whatever is the worst sexual abuse you can think of, it occurred," Chesley said. "I'm not going to get into the gory details, but you name it, it happened. Unfortunately, some of it happened over a long period of time."
An August 2003 report ordered by Bishop Roger J. Foys found "reasonable cause to believe" that, in the previous half-century, 30 of 372 priests in the Covington diocese had sexually abused at least one minor. The diocese tracked 158 allegations, including 67 against a single priest.
In the intervening years, nine of the priests died, four were removed from the priesthood and 17 were shifted from active duty, according to the report, which was sent to the 89,000 Roman Catholics in the diocese. Foys apologized, asked for forgiveness, and announced that priests and others who work with children would undergo background checks.
Attorneys for the victims contend in court documents that Potter has no authority to make demands that go beyond the settlement agreement. They also maintain that he signed off on a critical confidentiality pledge that was delivered to class-action members and was published and broadcast widely.
The notice, intended to spread the word around the region and the nation, said the court "has ordered the parties to keep the identity of Class Members confidential to the extent reasonably possible," and says, "Names of Class Members are not currently a matter of public record."
If prosecutors file a case against an abuser, the attorneys believe, the victim's identity will become public.
William F. McMurry, who negotiated a settlement with Louisville's Roman Catholic archdiocese on behalf of 243 victims, said Potter has considerable discretion. He believes the lawyers made a confidentiality promise that was beyond their ability to deliver.
"Judge Potter is no stranger to doing things his own way," McMurry said. "Every lawyer should know when they make promises to their client, they've got to preface that comment with a statement that the court has the supreme authority to make the decision."
To some plaintiffs, however, the promise of anonymity was crucial to their participation, and they believe it should be irrevocable.
"I guarantee you, I would never have come forward unless I knew there was going to be extreme privacy in this matter," said the Chesley client, now in his late thirties, who was abused in parochial school.
"I have clients. I have colleagues. If my name were to be put out in some public record to where any Tom, Dick or Harry could access my records, it would severely tarnish my career.
"And," he added, "I definitely don't want my kids to know about this."