LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Attorney Stan Chesley promised confidentiality to more than 350 people who said they were sexually abused by priests. Then a judge ordered him to reveal their names, along with contact information and a description of the abuse.
Unless the judge and attorneys reach a compromise, the Kentucky Court of Appeals will decide whether a promise of confidentiality trumps the need for prosecutors to get information on an alleged crime – and whether a judge can order an attorney to reveal the identities of clients in a civil lawsuit.
Special Judge John Potter suspended his ruling this past week for 60 days to allow time for an appeal or resolution to the dispute.
The dispute is unprecedented among the numerous sex abuse lawsuits filed against the Roman Catholic church in North America, say the attorneys, the judge and outside observers.
“I don’t know of any judge anywhere that has done this,” said David Clohessy, national director of The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a nationwide support group. “Victims come forward because they can remain anonymous. He’s jeopardizing that.”
The dispute arose after Potter approved an $84 million settlement between the plaintiffs and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington.
Potter said Kentucky law requires that the names of victims and details of an alleged crime be reported to prosecutors for a decision on whether to prosecute those accused.
A 2004 investigation by the diocese uncovered 158 claims of abuse involving 35 priests, but Potter wrote that the litigation leading up to the settlement likely uncovered evidence that hundreds of children were sexually abused by dozens of church personnel thousands of times.
Chesley objected, along with co-counsel Robert Steinberg and Carrie Huff, the attorney for the diocese.
Turning the names over now would break the promise of confidentiality and possibly result in the names being made public, Steinberg said. The plaintiffs are adults and free to talk with prosecutors if they choose, but should not be forced to, he said.
The diocese has been giving prosecutors information about alleged crimes, but withholding the names of the accusers, Huff said.
“We don’t give personal information,” Huff said. “We let the victim do that if they want to.”
Steinberg said the state law cited by Potter doesn’t require the names of victims who are unwilling to testify or whose cases cannot be prosecuted.
Elsewhere in Kentucky, victims’ names were used in most civil lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Louisville. In California, however, plaintiffs in many cases were listed as “John Doe” or “Jane Doe.”