Status Granted to Kentucky Lawsuit
Lawyer says up to 1,000 abused in Covington
By Paul A. Long - Kentucky Post
October 2, 2003
Over the past 50 years, the Diocese of Covington has assigned
abusive priests to be pastors, counselors, teachers and even
the director of a boy's orphanage, an attorney suing the diocese
said during court arguments Wednesday.
The diocese moved the priests around after accusations were
made against them, then put them back in places where they
had easy access to children. The diocese also taught children
to respect, honor and obey the priests' commands, attorney
Robert Steinberg argued.
The result is that up to 1,000 children were abused over
the past 50 years, with at least 40 priests -- more than 10
percent of the total priests in the diocese over that period
-- identified as abusers, Steinberg charged.
"They have admitted to 30 priests," Steinberg said.
"Our count so far is 40 -- and climbing. There was an
epidemic in this diocese."
After hearing the arguments, Boone Circuit Judge Jay Bamberger
granted class-action status to the lawsuit, which alleges
a half-century-long cover-up of sexual abuse in the diocese.
Although hundreds of lawsuits have been filed against dioceses
across the country, and several have sought to be class-actions
lawsuits, the Boone County lawsuit is believed to be the first
in the nation to be granted such status.
Bamberger's ruling means that Steinberg and his partner,
Stan Chesley, will be able to argue on behalf of any alleged
victims of sexual misconduct by Catholic priests in the diocese
over the past 50 years.
Bamberger issued his ruling from the bench after listening
to about 90 minutes of attorney arguments witnessed by about
50 plaintiffs and their family members in the Boone County
courtroom in Burlington.
"Now we're going to move the case forward on behalf
of these innocent victims," Chesley said.
"I asked them to be here,'' he said of the victims.
"They are part of the class. This is an open courtroom.
We're not going to have closed courtrooms or secret trials."
The diocese issued a brief statement later in the day, saying
that it "continues to believe that a class proceeding
is not the appropriate legal channel for addressing these
Carrie Huff, an attorney from Chicago brought in to represent
the diocese, said it was too early to determine whether the
order would be -- or even if it could be -- appealed.
Huff previously worked with Bishop Roger Foys when he was
the vicar general, the number two man in the diocese, in Steubenville,
"Bishop Foys is familiar with her work and has asked
her to work with our diocesan attorneys,'' said spokesman
In his oral order, Bamberger said the first trial in the
case will determine whether the diocese is liable for injuries
suffered by the victims of abuse, and whether it should pay
punitive damages. The second phase will help determine the
amount of the individual claims, he said.
No dates have been set for either trial.
If indeed the number of victims is between 500 and 1,000
as Chesley and Steinberg say, the amount of money involved
could be staggering. The church has admitted it has 158 victims.
In the only sex-abuse case against the diocese that went
to trial, a jury in 1995 ordered the church to pay $737,000
to a Fort Thomas man who had been abused by Father Earl Bierman
in the 1970s. The verdict was upheld on appeal.
Multiple claims against other dioceses have resulted in multi-million
dollar settlements. The Boston Archdiocese recently settled
a case involving 552 different lawsuits for $85 million. That
settlement "maxed out" the church's financial resources
in Boston, newly named Archbishop Sean O'Malley said.
The Boston settlement surpassed the $31 million that victims
of ex-priest Rudy Kos received from the Diocese of Dallas
in 1998 and the $25.7 million the Archdiocese of Louisville
recently agreed to pay to settle 243 lawsuits.
Both the Covington Diocese and Chesley said it is far too
early to discuss a settlement.
The next step is to advertise the class-action lawsuit in
publications both in Kentucky and across the nation, Steinberg
Only those who specifically opt out of the case will not
be a part of the lawsuit. Anyone else with a sexual abuse
claim against the church will be included in the litigation.
Huff had argued that the victims might have individual cases,
but she rejected the need for a lawsuit showing any widespread
pattern of abuse.
"These are not collective claims," she said. "They
are individual tort claims. They have to establish individual
But Bamberger often interrupted her, saying he had trouble
following the logic of her arguments.
"I think you're saying one thing, then backing off it,"
Chesley scoffed at the notion that each case should be tried
separately. The number of victims, the similarities of their
claims, and the common theme that runs throughout -- that
the diocese knew about and covered up the abusive priests
-- all "cries out for class certification," he said.