Demand for documents from SNAP draws attention

A Jackson County lawsuit against a Catholic priest is attracting attention because of a broad demand that an advocacy group supply numerous documents.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) has been ordered to disclose records to the priest’s defense lawyers that could include years of emails with victims, journalists and others.

SNAP has so far failed to block the ruling by a judge, which requires the organization to produce the documents and also allows defense attorneys to depose the network’s national director, David Clohessy, next week.

SNAP’s attorneys have asked the Missouri Supreme Court to intervene.

Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Ann Mesle said Clohessy must comply because he “almost certainly has knowledge concerning issues relevant to this litigation.” Mesle argued that Clohessy is free not to respond to specific questions at the deposition and can request that individual documents remain confidential.

But victims’ advocates say that if Clohessy is compelled to appear, it could have a chilling effect on the ability of victims of clergy sex abuse to tell their stories without revealing their names in public.

Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law at New York’s Yeshiva University, told the National Catholic Reporter that the subpoena is “one of the uglier moves I’ve seen by any organization in these cases so far.”

Some commentators, however, said SNAP was hypocritical for demanding public release of diocesan records while being unwilling to be transparent itself.

SNAP has played a prominent role in 2011 in Kansas City in demanding justice for alleged victims of sex abuse at the hands of priests — allegations that have embroiled the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph for much of the year.

Mesle issued the current order in one of five abuse lawsuits against the Rev. Michael Tierney since the fall of 2010. Tierney has denied any wrongdoing, but the diocese said it removed Tierney from all pastoral assignments in June.

The plaintiff, identified only as John Doe, B.P., said he was 13 when Tierney attacked and molested him in the 1970s.

Defense lawyers sought the documents as evidence that the accuser’s attorney, Rebecca Randles, violated the gag order by giving details of the case to SNAP. The defense claims the group then printed the information in a press release.

Randles has denied violating any ethical rules.

Under the ruling, SNAP must produce all documents or correspondence relating to Tierney, the diocese, any priest currently or formerly associated with the diocese, any SNAP communication with the plaintiff and any documents related to repressed memory.

The Missouri Press Association has filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the order is unconstitutional and that it would “irrevocably harm the news-gathering process, chill speech by both the news media and potential sources and significantly affect the quality of investigative reporting in the state.”

The court order covers correspondence between SNAP and members of the press, including reporters for The Star.