O’Connell reverses stance on naming plaintiffs in police sex-abuse case

After initially saying Thursday that former Explorer Scouts who allege abuse in the police youth program should not be allowed to remain anonymous, County Attorney Mike O’Connell backtracked later in the day, issuing a statement that said neither he nor Mayor Greg Fischer want to reveal their names.

O’Connell told reporters after a Jefferson Circuit Court hearing Thursday morning that for fairness, plaintiffs should be identified because police officers who are defendants are identified by name.

“The playing field needs to be leveled,” said O’Connell, who is representing the city in an effort initiated by the Courier-Journal to open a lawsuit filed by a former Scout identified only as N.C., who claimed he was sexually abused by two officers and that the police department concealed it.

But later O’Connell’s office issued a statement saying: “I want to be clear that neither I nor the city want any abuse victims’ identity to be made public” and any decision on that would be made by the court.

“My staff and I work tirelessly every day in the support of victims of sexual assault. Our pleadings, from the very start of this case, have demonstrated this commitment to protecting victims,” O’Connell said in the statement.

Judge Judith McDonald-Burkman delayed until May 3 her ruling on a motion by the Courier-Journal to unseal the March 8 lawsuit,  which was filed by attorney David Yates, who has said he has talked to other former Scouts who said they were abused.

McDonald-Burkman said she wants to hear arguments on whether the state law cited in sealing the lawsuit is unconstitutional.

The law says if a suit is filed alleging an act of child sexual assault or abuse occurred more than five years prior to the date of the lawsuit, the complaint shall be immediately sealed and all filings in the case shall remain sealed if the defendant wins the case and wants it to remain confidential. The only exception is if a higher court orders the case opened.

One of the Courier-Journal’s attorneys, Jon Fleischaker, said the law is invalid because it mandates that suits filed on behalf of alleged childhood sex-abuse victims automatically be sealed, without a hearing, which higher courts have said is not allowed.

The Courier-Journal, which typically does not name victims of sexual abuse in criminal cases, is seeking to unseal the lawsuit but not for the purpose of publishing the names of any plaintiffs, said Executive Editor Joel Christopher. The news organization wants the suit to be open to have access to any additional filings made in the case, Christopher said.

O’Connell said Thursday morning that N.C.’s case should be open because the allegations are serious and the public has a right to know about them. He told reporters afterward that the law cited by Yates in getting the suit sealed was intended to protect defendants, not alleged victims.

Yates, who is also president of the Metro Council, told McDonald-Burkman that he doesn’t necessarily think the statute is constitutional but that the identity of his client — and others he claims to represent — should be protected. Another circuit judge, Barry Willett, previously struck down the state law, but McDonald-Burkman said his decision is not binding in her courtroom.

“There is no public purpose in having them named and victimized again,” Yates said during the hearing.

The Courier-Journal obtained a copy of the suit and reported on its allegations, which include that Wood and Betts sexually abused N.C. in police cruisers and made pornographic videos of their alleged misconduct. The suit also names as defendants Maj. Curtis Flaherty, who supervised the Explorer program for youths interested in law enforcement; and the Boy Scouts of America, which helped run the program.

Last week WDRB Media also filed to unseal the lawsuit, saying it is adopting the Courier-Journal’s arguments that the public has a right to know.

Reporter Andrew Wolfson can be reached at 502-582-7189 or awolfson@courier-journal.com. Reporter Phillip M. Bailey can be reached at 502-582-4475 or pbailey@courier-journal.com.

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