A victims' group filed a class-action lawsuit yesterday to void the secrecy provisions in all settlements signed by people who say they were sexually abused by Roman Catholic priests.
The group, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, and several individuals filed the suit in state court in Minnesota.
"These gag provisions that the dioceses have requested of victims and their families are instruments of secrecy," said Jeffrey R. Anderson, a lawyer in St. Paul who represents the plaintiffs. "They are morally and legally offensive."
Mr. Anderson said his clients did not want to undo the settlements in their entirety, which would require them to give back the money they received. They are asking only that the secrecy provisions be stricken on the ground that they are against public policy.
The defendants are the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the Archdiocese of Dubuque, in Iowa, the Diocese of Jefferson City, in Missouri, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Mark E. Chopko, the conference's general counsel, said the lawsuit was an effort to divert attention from the bishops' meeting in Dallas next week.
"I regard this as completely bogus," Mr. Chopko said. The other defendants did not return calls or had no comment.
Benita Kane Kirschbaum, one of the plaintiffs, said she has been abused and raped by a priest. She declined to name him, citing a settlement she signed with the Archdiocese of Dubuque in 1993.
"I was vulnerable at the time," she said. "I'm sorry I settled, but I'm more sorry I ever signed the gag order. It has gagged me ever since. I suspect it's illegal, but worse yet it's a roadblock in my healing journey."
Experts in class-action litigation were skeptical about the suit. For class actions to be allowed, plaintiffs must show that what they have in common outweighs their differences and that there are so many of them that the cases would otherwise be unmanageable.
"It sounds like a very dubious proposition, and it looks like legal showboating," said Geoffrey C. Hazard Jr., a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
Edward H. Cooper, a law professor at the University of Michigan, agreed.
"It fails at virtually all of the threshold criteria" for class actions, Mr. Cooper said. Among the differences among the plaintiffs' cases, he continued, are how the settlements were negotiated, what they say, and what state law governs them.
Professor Hazard added that the relief the plaintiffs seek was inappropriate. "If you want to rescind," he said, "you have to give back the money."
David Clohessy, the national director of the Survivors Network, disputed that. "Many survivors who settle do so in desperate straits," Mr. Clohessy said. "They're in financial distress, and they need money for therapy. The courts would simply say we can't undo the past, but this portion of the injustice and the pain we can remedy."