Court rejects Atlanta Catholic Diocese’s argument that child sex abuse victim is a ‘legal nullity’
A Georgia appeals court ruled that the Fulton County District Court judge was incorrect to toss out a suit filed by an anonymous sex abuse victim against the Atlanta Catholic Diocese.
According to the ALM’s Daily Report Online, the three-judge Georgia Court of Appeals panel ruled that Fulton State Court Judge Patsy Porter was wrong when she ruled in 2013 that the suit filed against Holy Cross Catholic Church was invalid because the plaintiff’s name was listed as “Jane Doe” and that it was too late for the plaintiff to include her name.
“Because we hold that the trial court erred in concluding that the complaint was void, we reverse,” the panel said in its decision.
“We further hold that the trial court has the discretion to consider whether Doe is
entitled to proceed under a pseudonym and, therefore,” the judges said, the suit against Holy Cross and the Atlanta Diocese may proceed.
In Jane Doe v. Archdiocese of Atlanta, et al., the plaintiff alleged that Holy Cross Catholic Church was negligent in failing to stop a music minister then in its employ from sexually assaulting her when she was 14 years old.
The appeals panel said that Judge Porter’s decision was wrong because the plaintiff’s name was revealed to the trial judge and to the church in the case, but had only been withheld from legal filings.
Judge Stephen Dillard wrote in the new decision that Porter could have required that the plaintiff file the suit under her name rather than dismissing the case.
Matthew Nasrallah, the plaintiff’s current attorney, told the Daily Report that the team plans to proceed with the case without the alleged victim’s name attached, but that they are prepared to include her name if the judge insists on it.
“We’re going forward,” Nasrallah said, “whether we’ve got to go under a pseudonym or not.”
For Atlanta church officials to press the issue and force the plaintiff to reveal her name publicly to the court, the attorney said, amounts to a form of legal intimidation.
“It does not speak well to the archdiocese in my opinion in forcing this issue,” he said. “It’s just poor form.”
Stephen Forte, counsel of the Archdiocese, said in an email to the Report that the church is currently “evaluating the opinion of the court and reviewing its options.”
Doe is currently in her mid-20s. Her suit accuses former Holy Cross youth minister Paul Berrell of sexual assault and Holy Cross of covering it up. Berrell is currently in prison in North Carolina on child pornography charges.
Doe and her attorneys say that Holy Cross fired Berrell when he was accused of molesting Doe and another girl, but neither families nor police were ever notified.
Judge Dillard was joined on the appeals panel by Judges Sara Doyle and M. Yvette Miller. In the decision he cited a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit decision in his reasoning in Doe v. Archdiocese of Atlanta, writing that the “ultimate test is whether the plaintiff has a ‘substantial privacy right which outweighs the customary and constitutionally-embedded presumption of openness in judicial proceedings.'”
“In sum,” he wrote, “we hold that Doe’s complaint filed using a pseudonym is not a legal nullity and reverse the trial court’s ruling on that issue. We further remand the case for the trial court’s consideration of whether Doe is permitted to proceed under a fictitious name in a manner consistent with this opinion.”
[image of judge reviewing documents via Shutterstock.com]