Ordered by the Missouri Supreme Court to reveal the names of priests credibly accused of sexually abusing minors — and of the victims — the Archdiocese of St. Louis said Wednesday that it would comply.
The identities would be provided only to lawyers pressing a lawsuit and would be sealed from the public.
The Archdiocese had stubbornly fought such a disclosure, blowing past several deadlines set by St. Louis Circuit Judge Robert Dierker and taking its appeal to the state’s top court. The only recourse would have been to try to get the U.S. Supreme Court to accept the case for review.
The ruling, issued by a full panel of judges, will open new doors to lawyers who sued in 2011 on behalf of a woman, then 19. She said she was sexually abused from 1997 to 2001 by the since-defrocked Rev. Joseph Ross, who previously had been convicted of abusing a minor.
The lawyers are trying to show that church officials had a pattern of ignoring warning signs and of shuffling abusive priests to other parishes, rather than addressing allegations and preventing future abuses.
As part of the suit, the archdiocese released an anonymous matrix of 240 complaints made against 115 church employees over a 20-year period ending in 2003. It deemed only 40 of those complaints “unsubstantiated.”
It was not clear how many of the 115 were priests; Wednesday’s order covered only priests and victims.
Dierker decided the anonymous list was not enough, and ordered that the names must be turned over to the woman’s attorneys, with the exception of the unsubstantiated cases. He also ordered the release of victims’ names.
Dierker’s order includes provisions to ensure that victims are to be contacted by a court-appointed attorney, not directly by the woman’s attorneys.
On Wednesday, the archdiocese said in a statement that it fought the disclosures “to protect the privacy rights of all involved, including victims who had no connection to current litigation and who had come forth confidentially regarding their reported allegation. The requested information includes not only names, but also addresses and phone numbers.”
“We appreciate the concern given this case throughout the appellate process, and although we share the disappointment of the many innocent individuals who will be affected by it, the Archdiocese of St. Louis will comply with the court order entered by the Missouri Supreme Court,” the statement continued.
Ken Chackes, an attorney for the woman, said that the ruling “will make it much more difficult for this Archdiocese and others to keep their secrets and to continue to enable known pedophiles to hurt children.”
The information provided to date, while vague, has provided more detail than ever before on how the abuse scandal within the Catholic Church played out locally.
Legal settlements and trials have forced similar disclosures in a number of other dioceses across the country, according to a list maintained by BishopAccountability.org.
What makes Dierker’s order in St. Louis particularly unique, Chackes said, is that it comes while the case is still pending — when more can be learned through depositions and the discovery process.
The release of the names will allow the plaintiff’s attorneys to investigate each claim on their own, and take testimony from those within the church who were familiar with the accused and the alleged abuse. It also allows them to compare what the archdiocese released with what they already know from victims’ advocacy groups and prior lawsuits.
Chackes said it was too soon to tell whether he would seek a delay of the trial, now set for Feb. 24, to provide time to absorb the new material.
He said that the victims’ names absolutely would not be revealed in the courtroom, but that he would argue that names of credibly accused priests might be. He also intends to fight for the disclosure of further documents on each allegation.
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a victims advocacy group, released a statement Wednesday urging victims to come forward and report abuse, given that the priests’ names will be kept under court seal. They also put out a call for public pressure.
“For the third time, a court has basically told Archbishop (Robert) Carlson to turn over records about 115 child molesting St. Louis clerics. We hope he complies,” Director David Clohessy said in the statement.
“And we hope Carlson’s flock insists that he also reveal how much money he’s spent just on his hard-ball ‘delay and attack' strategy in this one case.”