Kentucky Lawyer Battles Church Over Sex Abuse
By Drew Jubera, The Atlanta Constitution
August 1, 2003
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The packed courtroom was like some tragic
class reunion: mostly middle-aged men and women from every
walk of life -- doctor, soccer mom, postal carrier -- who
had been sexually abused as kids by Catholicpriests or teachers
There were men who had been assaulted as altar boys and a
woman who had been raped in her Communion dress. At one school
during the '60s, the boys developed a "buddy system"
so they would never be left alone with one particular priest,
who has been named in more than 90 abuse cases. Mike Clark,
now 53, lost track of his sixth-grade partner one day in the
church basement. He recalled, "When I turned around and
saw that Cheshire cat grin on the priest's face, I knew it
was my turn."
They were in Jefferson County Circuit Court last week for
a hearing to voice their final for-the-record opinion of the
$25.7 million that the Archdiocese of Louisville this summer
agreed to pay 243 victims -- the second-largest such sex abuse
settlement ever in the United States.
"It has worn me to a frazzle," William McMurry,
the lawyer who represented 214 of the victims and negotiated
the class-action settlement, said later. "Listening to
grown men cry and tell their story over and over again --
it's been the hardest undertaking of my life."
Last week's hearing produced some victims upset either at
the size of the settlement -- they didn't think it crippled
the archdiocese enough -- or at McMurry's 40 percent contingency
fee, not uncommon for such difficult-to-win cases.(The judge
signed a final order Friday approving both.) But McMurry delivered
the settlement in a speedy 14 months and orchestrated a resolution
that is being felt far beyond this midsized Southern town
of 200,000 Catholics on the banks of the Ohio River.
"I've never seen one lawyer take on so many cases in
so short a period," said Jeff Anderson, a Minneapolis-based
lawyer who since the 1980s has litigated more than 500 sex
abuse cases against the Catholic Church in dozens of states.
"It's had a powerful impact not just on that archdiocese,
but on bishops across the country. The ripple effect is enormous."
Added David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors
Network of those Abused by Priests in Chicago, "Survivors
of clergy abuse are a notoriously difficult group of clients
-- we've been deeply scarred and are very mistrustful, especially
of authority figures.
"This was a brave lawyer who has been sensitive to the
victims. He really did understand and commit to the intense
care that his clients needed."
Champion of underdogs
McMurry, 47, has taken all kinds of underdog cases, gaining
a reputation here as a crusader for the common man despite
a high-flying combination of boyish good looks, expensive
tailoring and a background in competitive sky diving. Louisville
attorney Drew White sums him up as "the genetic gift
you expect to find in a Hollywood screenplay lawyer."
In 1997 McMurry read a newspaper account of a trial involving
an HIV-infected woman suing a hospital for improperly disclosing
her condition. The woman's lawyers had dropped her when she
couldn't pay them, and with the trial starting that day, McMurry
drove to the courthouse, took the case for free and won a
But the suits against the archdiocese were more personal.
His younger sister was sexually abused by a neighbor in Paducah,
where McMurry grew up and his father was a judge.
She finally told her family when she was an adult, then lived
a productive life into her 30s, becoming a mental health professional
in Oregon. But as often happens with survivors of childhood
sex abuse, the wheels eventually came off.
At 35, McMurry says, his sister became a heroin addict. She
has been in and out of rehab and given a baby up for adoption.
Now she's pregnant and under house arrest in Portland, Ore.,
on drug charges.
"I've seen firsthand the destruction of childhood sexual
abuse, and it's an ugly thing," McMurry said. "It
impacts like a scatter bomb, affecting everybody in their
lives in a profound way."
An avalanche of lawsuits
The first case against the Archdiocese of Louisville walked
through McMurry's door on April 16, 2002. Michael Turner,
a construction company owner, had read a story two days earlier
in The Louisville Courier-Journal about a priest forced to
retire because of sex abuse allegations filed by a niece.
He was the same priest who had molested Turner in 1973, when
he was an eighth-grader.
"Bill said he didn't know if I had a case because of
the statute of limitations," Turner recalled. "But
he got very emotional -- he gave me his cellphone number and
said call any time."
Turner filed his suit three days later under his own name
-- Louisville is the only archdiocese in which every plaintiff
sued by namerather than John or Jane Doe, according to Clohessy
-- and he talked to the media.
"It was important for everybody's name to be out there,
to have their credibility and reputation in front of the community
of victims," McMurry said.
An avalanche followed. Within two months, 100 more lawsuits
were filed. McMurry held a news conference after each batch
of suits, his anger and bird-of-prey gaze inspiring more victims
to come forward.
"Watching him on TV, you could see he was emotionally
connected," said victim Tom Weiter, 50. "Before
I heard the story about his sister, I thought he could have
been one of us."
By last August, McMurry had 166 clients. Turning down all
other litigation, he barely kept up. Working in an office
with one lawyer, he brought on six more, including former
law partner Ann Oldfather, renowned locally for high-profile
divorce cases. Every client had his cellphone number and he
was called constantly -- McMurry was the first person to whom
many had told their story. He became as much therapist as
Said Oldfather, "We would interview a client and look
at each other with utter horror and emotional desperation
and walk out of the room and say, 'Is that the worst thing
you ever heard?' "
It took a toll on McMurry. His wife, with whom he has two
young children -- he has two other kids from a previous marriage
-- filed for divorce. "She had enough," McMurry
By April 2003, McMurry had more than 200 plaintiffs. Six
other lawyers filed lawsuits on behalf of 29 victims, largely
emboldened by McMurry.
"Other lawyers wouldn't have taken cases if they didn't
know he and Oldfather were involved," said White, who
represents six victims.
McMurry still worried that the cases, which dated from the
'50s to the '90s, would be tossed because the statute of limitations
had expired, as has happened to hundreds of similar lawsuits
in Boston and New York. But the archdiocese, which also believed
many of the cases would be dismissed, nevertheless foresaw
years of litigation, said Brian Reynolds, chancellor and chief
administrative officer of the archdiocese.
McMurry joined the 243 plaintiffs as a class for purposes
of a settlement, and the two sides agreed to mediation. McMurry's
opening bid: $150 million. The church, without litigation
insurance, offered $5 million. The final settlement for $25.7
million, reached June 10, was more than half the archdiocese's
The archdiocese also agreed from then on to refer to the
plaintiffs as "victims." Not "alleged victims."
Archdiocese cuts back
In anticipation of a settlement, the archdiocese in April
reduced its $9 million annual budget by $2 million and laid
off 34 employees. Additional cuts of about $1 million are
expected, said Reynolds.
It's unclear yet how deeply those cuts will affect the archdiocese's
far-flung charitable and social service programs, which range
from food banks to English classes for immigrants. Reynolds
allowed that the consequences would be "substantial."
He added, "I'm glad we settled, but I'm angry about
what is behind the need to settle. Children were hurt, and
it was criminal and evil.
"The church has to earn people's trust back," he
went on. "We have to be different. The question a couple
[of] years out will be: Did they live by what they said, or
did they do it because the cameras were on and they were under
"I'm convinced change is under way and we will not go
Some victims not satisfied
Many victims aren't convinced. There's a petition for the
removal of Archbishop Thomas Kelly, in office since 1982,
who victims believe had knowledge of some abuses and didn't
take sufficient action. They also don't trust the archdiocese
to monitor its own recently instituted safeguards, including
programs to educate staff and students about inappropriate
And some still say the archdiocese didn't pay dearly enough.
If the settlement is divvied up equally -- that's still to
be determined -- each victim will receive about $60,000, after
McMurry's fees, which total more than $10 million.
Most victims say nothing would adequately compensate them,
that they have to be satisfied with finally having their darkest
torment exposed and accepted by the community. They say they're
stronger for it and ready to move on.
"No amount of money is going to return our childhood
to us," said Weiter.
McMurry is ready to move on, too. He filed a $10 billion
federal lawsuit in 1999, a class action that would affect
as many as 10,000 people who allegedly suffered from radiation
exposure at a plant using nuclear fuel in Paducah.
A court recently dismissed the suit, but McMurry plans to
appeal. And he's already gotten some personal satisfaction
To prove the radiation's effects, McMurry was allowed to
exhume the bodies of three plant workers to test their bones
for overexposure. It was a gruesome process, and none of the
bones proved McMurry's point.
But one of the bodies McMurry chose was that of the neighbor
who'd molested his sister.
"I had to pick three bodies, so I thought, 'What the
hell, he'd been working at the plant 40 years,' " McMurry
said, taking a late-night smoke break outside his office.
"So I had that pedophile dug up and chopped into pieces."
"It was a real catharsis."