Church approach to sex-abuse lawsuits varies widely
By KEVIN MURPHY The Kansas City Star
Mon, Mar. 07, 2005
In both Kansas City and St. Louis, priests have been the target
of many sexual-abuse lawsuits in recent years.
The allegations are similar that some priests abused children,
mostly boys, in the 1970s and 1980s and that the church hierarchy
knew of the misconduct but failed to take much, if any, action.
The responses to the lawsuits, however, are quite different.
The Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis has taken most of the lawsuits
right to mediation, settling 31 of 40 recent cases for $2.4 million
and agreeing to send letters of apology to victims.
The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, meanwhile, is contesting
all 16 pending lawsuits in court and has filed several dozen motions
to strike language, seek more details or dismiss cases.
The motions have met with mixed success; only one of the lawsuits
The diocesan motions frustrate plaintiffs in Kansas City, said
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those
Abused by Priests.
There is a difference between fighting on the merits and
fighting on technicalities, Clohessy said.
The Rev. Patrick Rush, diocesan vicar general, said the diocese
is following lawyers' advice in fighting the lawsuits.
I regret that they (the plaintiffs) chose to go the litigious
route, Rush said. I respect the wisdom of the state
of Missouri and its laws, and whether it will work to our benefit
or theirs is something they have chosen to find out from the courts.
A diocesan committee hears abuse complaints and advises Bishop
Raymond Boland on how to respond. Some people who sued went to the
committee and some did not, said their lawyer, Rebecca Randles.
Nationally, dioceses are encouraged to resolve lawsuits out of
court, but some mount legal defenses based on the circumstances
of cases, said Mark Chopko, general counsel of the U.S. Conference
of Catholic Bishops. There is no trend, he said.
In the 16 lawsuits filed since fall 2003, about 30 plaintiffs accuse
five former Kansas City priests of sexually abusing them as children.
Four of the ex-priests Thomas Reardon, Joseph Hart, Thomas
J. O'Brien and Francis McGlynn say they are innocent. A fifth,
Hugh Monahan, is said to be out of the country and has made no comment.
Some plaintiffs filed lawsuits anonymously, and all seek unspecified
James Tierney, a diocesan attorney, declined to comment on the
strategy of contesting the cases.
Chopko said the Conference of Bishops had for 10 or 15 years urged
dioceses to consider mediation or alternative dispute resolutions.
But in the end, the decision about what works and won't work
has to be made by people who are on the ground and that is the bishop
and his advisers, Chopko said.
Factors in that decision include the number and complexity of the
lawsuits, the strength of the claims, the financial means of the
diocese and the cooperation of insurance companies, Chopko said.
The St. Louis Archdiocese recently announced it agreed to pay $267,500
to settle seven cases of alleged sexual abuse, the latest in the
round of 31 case settlements in the past 13 months.
We take the approach that if we can get them resolved through
mediation and help with the healing, that's better for everybody,
said archdiocesan lawyer Bernard Huger, adding it also tended to
be less expensive.
Nine cases are unresolved, some are in mediation and two are being
contested in court, he said.
Rush said he did not know how much the 16 lawsuits had cost the
Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese in legal fees.
Mike Hunter, leader of the Kansas City chapter of the survivors'
network, said the diocese is using its financial advantage to prolong
the court action.
Hunter, one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit in which he alleges
Hart abused his brother, circulated leaflets at one parish parking
lot last month urging people to give to charity instead of to the
church to show their concern about the legal fees.
Through the years, the diocese has settled numerous abuse complaints,
most of which never were the subject of lawsuits.
The diocese reported last year that it had spent $855,826 on settlements,
legal fees and counseling in 35 sexual-abuse complaints against
20 priests through 2003.
The alleged abuses occurred between 1951 and 1992, but settlements
continued, the diocese said.
Rush said he did not know details of the St. Louis lawsuits and
could not say if they were a benchmark for Kansas City.
We continue to stay in dialogue with our lawyers, and we
do continue to monitor what is going on in other dioceses,
In Kansas City, the diocese repeatedly has criticized the lawsuits
as vague, with unknown dates of offenses and unknown ages of victims
at the time.
Huger said the settled lawsuits in St. Louis also were extremely
vague and very defective.
One difference that stands out between the cases in St. Louis and
Kansas City involves the status of some accused priests.
The recently settled St. Louis cases involved three priests
Michael McGrath, Donald Straub and Robert Yim whom the Vatican
defrocked earlier this year at the request of Archbishop Raymond
Burke because of abuse allegations.
Another priest, Romano Ferraro, was convicted in May of raping
a boy in Massachusetts in the 1970s.
Mediation with the defrocked priests began more than a year before
they were defrocked, Huger said. He said the defrocking was not
necessarily an issue in the mediation settlements.
None of the five Kansas City priests was defrocked or has been
criminally charged, but the diocese took action against four after
Rush has acknowledged two complaints were lodged against Reardon
in the 1980s.
He said Reardon was sent to counseling for multiple addictions
but that files were not clear on whether one was sexual addiction.
Reardon, who left the active priesthood in 1989, faces the most
lawsuits of the accused priests, with 11 plaintiffs taking him to
The diocese revealed in 2002 that five persons alleged past sexual
abuses by O'Brien, though not in a lawsuit. Earlier, he received
counseling after allegations in 1983 of inappropriate touching of
youngsters. He was removed as a parish priest and became a hospital
chaplain, a job he retired from after the 2002 allegations.
Hart, a retired Wyoming bishop, was the subject of sexual-abuse
allegations in the early 1970s in Kansas City.
The diocese spent thousands of dollars on counseling for families
of alleged victims.
McGlynn retired as an active diocesan priest in 1992. In 2002,
after the diocesan review committee met with a woman who complained
about sexual abuse, McGlynn was told he could no longer act as a
Monahan left the active priesthood in 1989, and Rush has said he
could find no diocesan record of sexual-abuse allegations against
him until 17 months after he left the priesthood.
In opposing the lawsuits, the diocese filed 63 motions to strike
language, seek more definitive statements or dismiss cases, Randles
Tierney would not verify that number but agreed that several dozen
motions were filed.
One motion, filed last March, is 47 pages long and requests that
the plaintiffs be more specific on matters such as the location
of outings that accused priests took with boys and what boys were
present besides the alleged victims.
The judge in the case ordered that the plaintiffs be more definite
regarding the dates of alleged abuses and more clearly state their
causes of action.
The diocese in court filings argued the lawsuits were well beyond
the five-year statute of limitations for sexual-abuse cases.
But defense lawyers said victims often repress those memories and
do not ascertain they were abused until many years later.
One of the two lawsuits against McGlynn, alleging abuses in 1973
and 1974, was dismissed for statute of limitations reasons, but
Randles is appealing.
Motions to dismiss other cases have been denied. Some motions to
strike language or be more definite in allegations were approved
and some were not, Jackson County Circuit Court records show.
Two dioceses abutting Kansas City, the Archdiocese of Kansas City
in Kansas and the Diocese of Jefferson City, have had comparatively
few lawsuits, and have settled some out of court.
To reach Kevin Murphy, call (816) 234-4464 or send e-mail to