A former Catholic church musician anonymously alleging he was raped has been forced to identify himself by name in order to continue his legal action against the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville, Tennessee.
Identified only as “John Doe” in his original lawsuit alleging a seminarian raped him, the claimant refiled his lawsuit Jan. 27 under his legal name, according to the document uploaded by Pillar Media.
Knox County Circuit Court Judge E. Jerome Melson ruled in August 2022 that the claimant could not pursue the lawsuit anonymously, granting a request by the defendants, according to court records Pillar Media accessed.
Liz Evan, a Clarksville, Tenn.-area attorney and member of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Sexual Abuse Task Force, which oversaw a third-party investigation in the SBC Executive Committee’s handling of abuse claims, said the judge’s ruling could discourage alleged sexual abuse survivors from seeking justice.
“Survivors will absolutely be chilled from seeking justice through the courts if they will be forced to reveal their names in order to sue,” Evan told media.
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The name of the claimant is not being reported here. The case was originally filed as John Doe v. Catholic Diocese of Knoxville and Richard F. Stika, but Stika is not the alleged rapist in the case. Rather, the lawsuit alleges that Wojciech Sobczuk raped John Doe on Feb. 5, 2019, and sexually harassed him on numerous occasions at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville. The defendants accuse John Doe of having been the aggressor.
Whether an alleged sexual abuse survivor can file a lawsuit anonymously is determined on a case-by-case basis, with rules varying by state, according to legal experts.
For example, in the case of Jane Roe v. Leighton Paige Patterson et al, still under litigation in the Eastern District of Texas court, defendants sought in 2019 to force Roe to reveal her true identity, according to court documents. But the judge ruled in Roe’s favor in the motion, maintaining her right to pursue the legal action under a pseudonym.
According to alllaw.com, several factors are valued when a judge rules regarding requests to maintain anonymity in sex abuse lawsuits.
Typically, judges consider whether removing anonymity will expose the plaintiff to danger, whether the plaintiff will suffer serious harm to his or her finances and reputation, whether the plaintiff will suffer “significant psychological harm,” and whether the subject matter of the lawsuit is of “a particularly intimate or private nature.”
In the ruling in question regarding the Catholic diocese, Melson sided with the defendants in their argument that Doe had not given an acceptable reason to continue under a pseudonym, and that Doe’s case was already public, The Pillar reported.
Doe’s attorneys argued to use a pseudonym because the lawsuit alleges sexual abuse, that revealing Doe’s identity would harm his psychological recovery, and that he would face reasonable fear of embarrassment, stigma, humiliation and economic harm, The Pillar reported.
“The decision to grant leave to proceed under a pseudonym is discretionary with the Court,” Melson wrote in his decision. “In this case, the Court finds that the exercise of the Court’s discretion to permit Plaintiff to proceed by pseudonym in this action is not warranted based upon the factual allegations contained in the complaint, including but not limited to plaintiff’s status as an adult at all times relevant therein, and the presumptively open and public nature of judicial proceedings in Tennessee.”
Several clergy sex abuse survivor advocates have said Melson’s ruling is unusual and unfair, the Knox News Sentinel reported.
“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,” Knox News quoted David Clohessy, former executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “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.”
This article was originally published by Baptist Press.
Diana Chandler is senior writer for Baptist Press.