In an unusual move, the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville won a legal effort to force an alleged rape victim to use his legal name instead of a pseudonym if he wants to continue his lawsuit against the church.
The diocese's push to name the victim alarmed clergy sex abuse advocates across the country. Several told Knox News the maneuver is meant to intimidate the man and scare off those who consider reporting a sexual assault in the future.
The lawsuit, filed in February 2022, says the church tried to discredit the man, identified by the pseudonym John Doe, and did not properly investigate his report that he was raped by a seminarian in February 2019.
A Knox County judge sided with the church. John Doe's attorney, Patrick Thronson, said the lawsuit will be refiled. Knox News will continue to refer to the man as John Doe because he alleges he is a sexual assault victim.
A separate sex abuse lawsuit against the Knoxville diocese is ongoing. A Sevier County woman, who filed under the pseudonym Jane Doe, says she was groped by a priest while he was counseling her following the death of the father of her infant.
Why the legal move is unusual
Mitchell Garabedian, a world-renowned clergy sex abuse attorney whose work helped break open the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal in Boston in the early 2000s, called the the diocese's legal effort "uncommon."
"The diocese is trying to intimidate the victim and in the process revictimize the victim," he told Knox News. "The diocese is now showing that it is acting in a heartless manner which indicates a complete lack of understanding of the evils of clergy sex abuse and the damages caused by clergy sex abuse."
David Clohessy, former executive director of SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests., told Knox News a bishop released Clohessy's name to the press the day after he filed a civil suit under the pseudonym John Doe in 1991 against the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri, and a priest.
"It's a pretty rare but very mean-spirited move. It's even more rare that a judge sides with a defendant over an alleged (sex abuse) victim in this way," he wrote to Knox News in an email.
"We see Catholic officials use this hardball tactic most often in cases where eventually it becomes crystal clear that horrific crimes were hidden by high-ranking members of the hierarchy for a long time."
The fight over the pseudonym was first reported by The Pillar, a publication that covers the Catholic Church. John Doe's lawsuit relies heavily on revelations unearthed by The Pillar, which first reported on Stika's removal of investigator George Prosser in May 2021.
What the diocese and John Doe said about the pseudonym
John Doe's attorneys argued the pseudonym was necessary because "the matter involves sexual abuse, and the fear of being subject to embarrassment, stigma, humiliation and economic harm."
Forcing John Doe to name himself would also harm his recovery from the trauma of the alleged assault, his lawyers argued.
"Survivors do not only suffer embarrassment and shame as a result of the abuse, but have historically been subjected to social ridicule and stigma," they wrote in a court filing.
However, in a filing last summer, the diocese's lawyers argued John Doe's case already is public and he hasn't shown an acceptable reason to continue under a pseudonym.
In his ruling, Circuit Court Judge E. Jerome Melson agreed with the diocese, saying John Doe was an adult when the alleged rape happened and because of "the presumptively open and public nature of judicial proceedings in Tennessee."
Ken Chackes, an attorney who decades of experience representing clergy sex abuse victims, mostly in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, told Knox News that American bishops promised in 2002 to treat people who alleged sexual abuse by clergy "with dignity and respect and to encourage them to come forward to seek healing.
"This kind of tactic is quite the opposite and is designed to discourage survivors from reporting their abuse" he said in an email. "It will protect and encourage child abusers as their victims remain silent."
Knox News has published several recent reports about sex abuse allegations against the diocese
Sources: High-ranking Catholic authorities scrutinize Knoxville bishop: As the two lawsuits targeted the diocese, officials received an apostolic visit late last year. These visits are typically ordered by church authorities to dig into the spiritual well-being of a diocese. Apostolic visitations often are a signal that church leaders are concerned about a matter and gives them a chance to speak directly with people involved.
Sources: Bishop Stika interfered with the church's investigation: Two people who played key roles in a review by the diocese into whether a seminarian raped a diocesan employee in 2019 told Knox News that Stika interfered by firing the investigator, independently confirming allegations that are detailed in a lawsuit by the man who says he was sexually assaulted. The man who replaced the investigator reportedly interviewed only the seminarian and not the alleged victim.
Review Board becomes more secretive: Three months after the diocese and Stika were named in an explosive sexual abuse lawsuit, leaders made the church's sexual abuse review board meetings much more secretive, including requiring members to sign nondisclosure agreements and disallowing note taking.
Tyler Whetstone is an investigative reporter focused on accountability journalism. Connect with Tyler by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyler_whetstone. Make our community, our society and our republic stronger by supporting robust local journalism. Subscribe online at knoxnews.com/subscribe.
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Knoxville diocese argued for alleged rape victim to be named