Victim Privacy vs. Criminal Enforcement

confidential1a.jpgAn article in today’s Washington Post raises a difficult privacy issue:

Promised anonymity in an $84 million settlement with a Kentucky Roman Catholic diocese, men and women sexually abused by its priests are opposing a state judge’s order to reveal their identities and details of the alleged crimes to prosecutors.

The dispute, prompted by the judge’s view that egregious cases of abuse may warrant criminal charges, raises complex privacy questions, and highlights the delicate balance between victims’ rights and the responsibility of legal authorities to punish lawbreakers.

Stanley M. Chesley, a Cincinnati attorney for more than 300 men and women abused by priests in Kentucky as long ago as the 1950s, said the order from Special Judge John Potter came “out of the clear blue,” several months after Potter approved the settlement. Chesley called the ruling “very callous, very broad and very frightening.”

One of Chesley’s clients said he thought hard before reporting the sexual abuse he suffered as a Catholic school student nearly 30 years ago. Until he filed, he had told no one — not his wife, not his mother or siblings, not his best friend who attended the school with him, and certainly not his colleagues or his children.

“It took me forever to do it, because I can’t afford to have my name or my identity exposed,” said the man, who spoke in return for a promise of anonymity. “As a victim, I would be mortified if this were to happen. Put yourself in my shoes. I would be abused all over again.”

The judge believes that the information is necessary for prosecutors to decide whether or not to prosecute the abusers. According to the article:

His order — on hold for 60 days to allow time for an appeal — requires the settlement supervisor to report “every act of suspected abuse” against a minor. The document must describe the circumstances, name the suspect and the victim, and provide the victim’s address and telephone number.

The information is to remain private, the judge ruled, “except as necessary to investigate or prosecute a crime.”

But victims believe that they are being betrayed:

To some plaintiffs, however, the promise of anonymity was crucial to their participation, and they believe it should be irrevocable.

“I guarantee you, I would never have come forward unless I knew there was going to be extreme privacy in this matter,” said the Chesley client, now in his late thirties, who was abused in parochial school.

“I have clients. I have colleagues. If my name were to be put out in some public record to where any Tom, Dick or Harry could access my records, it would severely tarnish my career.

“And,” he added, “I definitely don’t want my kids to know about this.”

This information might put abusers behind bars and prevent them from abusing children in the future. But is it worth the cost of identifying the victims? I believe that the costs outweigh the benefits of disclosure. The victims came forward after being promised confidentiality, and if such promises are not upheld, then it has an impact on all similar promises of confidentiality. Establishing a precedent that promises of confidentiality are not inviolable makes such promises lack the necessary reliability to make people come forward.

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1 Response

  1. Mildred Bilt says:

    The reluctance of sexual abuse victims to be publicly exposed is not limited to Church criminality. The same problem faces prosecutors in the broader society: known sexual predators who can’t be tried for lack of testimony or shortened sentences because only one witness comes forward when 50 or more victims are suspected. One result is recidivism and repeated offences, often ending in horrendous murder.

    The onus is on the justice system: in some violent gang cases in NY,terrified witnesses are allowed to testify incognito.

    The increased rise in murder and violent crime in cities across the country are another facet of the unwillingness of witnesses to testify because of personal fear. If the community is unable to participate in maintaining a civilized society, a judicial demand is naive in the extreme. That ivory tower needs a heavy dose of realism.