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Readers help inform our coverage of a difficult case

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Posted: Monday, March 12, 2012 2:23 pm | Updated: 6:29 am, Mon May 21, 2012.

Last week, I wrote an editor's note regarding the ongoing civil sex abuse case involving Father Michael Kelly of Lockeford. (That note is below.)

I ended by asking readers for their thoughts, and received several responses. Among them:

• A suggestion that we more frequently emphasize that the plaintiff is recalling memories that were repressed for more than 20 years.

True, the chronology of the case has been somewhat sketchy; reporter Ross Farrow and I agreed that clarifying the time frame of the case is a goal as we move forward.

• A suggestion that we use "repressed memory case" to identify the suit in headlines and leave Father Kelly's name out of the headline altogether.

An interesting idea and it may have merit. One challenge: The discussion of repressed memory has not yet become central in the case.

• The assertion that the coverage has been "one-sided" toward the plaintiff, who remains anonymous under the state's shield law for protecting victims (and purported victims) of sexual abuse.

Frankly, I was surprised to learn that in civil cases, as in criminal ones, plaintiffs can remain anonymous. For both legal and ethical reasons, we are respecting that anonymity. I can see how it makes our coverage seem somewhat tilted. The plaintiff is unnamed and yet the name of the defendant is public, bringing with it the unfavorable perception that accompanies the accusation of sexual abuse.

(We have stopped running Father Kelly's photo with the court coverage, which seemed to place undue emphasis on the defendant.)

Moreover, the plaintiff and his legal team have presented their case first, typical in civil cases, so in terms of pure sequence the plaintiff's side has drawn more attention so far. In coming days, Father Kelly's case will be presented and I am hopeful that will provide some balancing of our coverage.

In the meantime, we appreciate - and are learning from - our readers'  feedback.

Thanks to those of you who have commented online or directly with me or Ross. 

Below is the original note:

Some readers have raised questions about our coverage of the civil sex abuse trial of Father Michael Kelly of Lockeford.

It’s been a difficult journalistic assignment for reporter Ross Farrow, and we’ve had many discussions about our coverage.

Here are the major questions from readers, and our responses:

Why are you covering this trial?

Kelly, a prominent and well-respected member of the community, stands accused of serious charges which he has adamantly denied. The plaintiff deserves a day in court, but certainly Kelly does, too. His reputation and standing in the community are on the line. The stakes are high. Each day, supporters from Kelly’s parish in Lockeford are in court. The case is being played out against the horrible backdrop of the Father Oliver O’Grady abuse case of several years ago. We feel that presenting a fair and thorough account of  this trial would be of both value and interest to the community. Others, of course, are free to disagree. We know we would certainly be criticized for not covering the trial as well.

Why are you not naming the plaintiff, since you are naming Father Kelly?

The court has not released the name of the plaintiff and we are respecting that decision. The plaintiff was allowed to file the case anonymously under state law designed to encourage sex abuse victims to step forward. We have in fact considered the ethical and to some extent, the legal ramifications of naming the plaintiff. We’ve considered the fact that he has not in fact been named a victim by police or prosecutors. We’ve considered the possibility that the jury may find that the plaintiff is not a sex abuse victim after all. But as the old phrase goes, you cannot unring the bell. So imagine that we named the plaintiff now, only to fnd later that the jury does indeed determine that he suffered abuse. The damage would be done. So we are witholding the name, though I suppose it is possible we could revisit that decision as the case evolves.

How can you justify describing the alleged sexual abuse in a family newspaper?

We’ve struggled with this. Some of the testimony is quite graphic and specific. We’ve tried to relate the nature of the alleged abuse in terms that are generally descriptive but not overly graphic. That’s a difficult and admittedly subjective process.

Why are you only giving only the plaintiff’s side of the case?

The plaintiff goes first in court, and the defense will come later. So Kelly and his defense team will have a chance to offer his side of the story, and we’ll reflect that. In the meantime, we have consistently emphasized that the charges are civil, not criminal, in nature.

If you’d like to offer comments on our coverage, please contact me at richardh@lodinews.com or at 209-

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