The Star’s editorial | Clergy abuse lawsuit takes a chilling turn

A Jackson County judge’s ruling in a lawsuit involving an alleged pedophile priest is harmful and wrong.

By decreeing that a victims advocacy group must turn over thousands of emails to the attorneys of accused priest the Rev. Michael Tierney, Circuit Judge Ann Mesle has compounded the damages borne by sexual abuse victims. Her ruling will serve to intimidate potential whistleblowers and discourage victims from coming forward with new allegations. Also, it chills the constitutionally protected right of journalists to gather information.

Mesle’s ruling potentially allows the perusal of decades worth of emails to and from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP. Tierney’s attorneys allege that the plaintiff’s attorney violated a gag order issued by Mesle by contacting SNAP.

Attempts to review decades of emails to and from people not even involved in Tierney’s case make this look more like a fishing expedition than a legitimate need to build a defense. The Missouri Press Association makes this point in an amicus brief. Kansas City attorney Jean Maneke said of Mesle’s order: “It would chill future news gathering. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that news gathering is protected under the First Amendment.”

SNAP has had decades of contacts with reporters from around the nation on issues having nothing to do with this particular case. It has received emails from many victims, whistleblowers and journalists with no ties to Tierney. Opening all such material to scrutiny would discourage communication on different matters in the future. Perhaps that is the ulterior motive of the motion?

An accused priest and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph have every right to defend themselves against allegations. However, this fishing expedition is little more than a beefed-up version of a distasteful yet common approach to rape cases: Blame the victim — or the victims advocacy group.

That this argument was made is hardly surprising. That a judge bought into it is a setback for victims and for justice. The Missouri Supreme Court should reconsider its reluctance to review Mesle’s ruling.

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