After a St. Louis federal judge levied sanctions last week against the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests for resisting a court order to turn over documents containing victim information, the advocacy group says it worries what such pursuits pose to survivor confidentiality going forward.
The sanctions came in the civil rights suit brought by Fr. Xiu Hui “Joseph” Jiang, a Chinese-born priest ordained for the St. Louis archdiocese who has brought conspiracy and defamation charges against SNAP and others in regard to a 2014 criminal charge of child sexual abuse that was eventually dropped. Twice in the last three years, Jiang has been criminally charged with child sexual abuse and twice the charges were dropped. A civil suit remains pending.
Judge Carol Jackson of the U.S. Eastern District Court of Missouri ruled on Aug. 22 that SNAP deliberately and willfully refused to comply with a June 27 court order to turn over documents requested in discovery by Jiang’s attorney. SNAP and its lawyers had contended the documents at issue contained confidential victim information and were protected under Missouri law, but Jackson ruled back in June that federal law didn’t offer those protections in pretrial discovery.
As part of the sanctions, the jury will be instructed to assume as true that SNAP conspired to seek a conviction of Jiang on religious and racial grounds, and that they issued false statements about him. SNAP was also ordered to cover Jiang’s legal fees associated with the efforts to obtain the disputed documents. His attorney filed a motion Thursday reporting $22,770 in related costs.
The judge’s order does not extend to evidence brought forth by the other defendants in the case. A trial date is tentatively set for July 10, 2017.
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The ruling put a dent into SNAP’s defense strategy and lowers a legal hurdle for Jiang in his pursuit to clear his name. In June 2015 the priest, who fled China in 2006 because of religious persecution, sued for an unspecified amount from SNAP leaders David Clohessy and Barbara Dorris, along with the parents of a child who accused him of sexual abuse, two police officers involved in that investigation, and the city of St. Louis.
The St. Louis archdiocese said it is not involved in the case in any way, and that Jiang’s canonical status remains under review.
It was SNAP’s defiance of the court order to produce documents that led to the judge issuing sanctions against them.
Jackson overruled SNAP’s multiple arguments that certain communications with abuse victims were protected through a Missouri statute that requires employees of a rape crisis center to maintain confidentiality of information identifying persons it serves and detailing advocacy efforts on their behalf. She said federal law didn’t guarantee such privacy in pretrial discovery of evidence.
The judge enforced sanctions after determining SNAP’s refusal to comply with the court order “had been willful and in bad faith,” and impaired Jiang’s ability to litigate claims he’s brought against the group. She added that the sanctions punishment was sufficient and a more severe version was unlikely to compel SNAP’s compliance in providing the documents.
The sanctions call for the jury to be instructed to assume as true Jiang’s allegations that Clohessy and Dorris “conspired with one another and others” to obtain Jiang’s conviction on sexual abuse charges and that they “entered into this conspiracy due to discriminatory animus against [Jiang] based on his religion, religious vocation, race and national origin.”
The jury will also be instructed that SNAP’s public statements about the priest “were false and that they did not conduct any inquiry into the truth or falsity of these public statements, but instead made these statements negligently and with reckless disregard for the truth.”
Amy Lorenz-Moser, one of the lawyers representing SNAP in the case, told NCR they intend to appeal the ruling.
John Sauer, Jiang’s attorney, did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
The stand against producing the documents had less to do with the Jiang case and more with the ramifications SNAP viewed capitulation would have had for other abuse survivors.
Clohessy said the order has worried the organization’s members. He called the pursuit of the documents “part of an escalating campaign to discredit us and defund us” and to prevent victims, witnesses and law enforcement officials from seeking SNAP’s help.
Added Lorenz-Moser, “If victims are scared that they don’t have confidentiality or their names might be disclosed to their abuser or to others, or that their private communications might be disclosed, they don’t come forward.
“Not only do they not come forward, but they don’t seek services that they need, they don’t feel protected, they don’t report crimes, and they don’t end up in a position to be able to vindicate themselves, and to stop the abuser from abusing other people,” she said.
Lorenz-Moser said the plaintiff discovery request was “extremely broad” and that SNAP turned over between 600 and 700 pages that included internal communications but omitted or redacted those concerning victims and advocacy work on their part.
The Jiang case represents the second time in four years that attorneys in Missouri have sought internal documents from SNAP. In late 2011, two lawsuits subpoenaed the group to turn over 23 years of internal documents, correspondence and email. SNAP was not a party to either lawsuit. In one suit, a Jackson County circuit judge ordered SNAP to turn over the files, with SNAP appealing to the Missouri Supreme Court, which denied it. When the case was dismissed and later settled as part of a mass settlement, SNAP was left off the hook.
“It’s part and parcel of the same fundamental attack,” Clohessy said of the attempts to obtain SNAP documents. “Only arguably, it’s more effective.”
As for the Jiang case, Clohessy said their defense “has been largely gutted” by the judge’s order.
“Obviously, this is a major setback,” Lorenz-Moser said. “Because we’re in a position now where the judge is preventing us from disputing liability. … The judge has instructed [the jury] to basically assume facts that we believe at trial will be shown to be false. So that is never a good position to be in when you’re a defendant.”
She argued that any damage to Jiang’s reputation in this case — which concerns allegations brought in April 2014 that the priest twice had sexual contact with a boy in a school bathroom between July 2011 and August 2012 — can be traced back to prior allegations.
The two felony counts of first-degree statutory sodomy related to 2014 allegations were dropped in June 2015 -- roughly a week before Jiang brought forth his federal lawsuit that includes the alleged victim’s parents. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported at the time that the circuit attorney’s office issued a statement saying it was “unable to proceed at this time” and remained hopeful charges would be refiled at a later date, as the statute of limitations remains open.
Criminal charges against Jiang were also dropped in November 2013, this time in Lincoln County, where Jiang was accused of improper contact with a teenage girl. He was also alleged to have offered the family $20,000 in exchange for their silence. A related civil case against Jiang remains pending.
[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]