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Class Action 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 claims."

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, Ohio.

"Bishop Foys is familiar with her work and has asked her to work with our diocesan attorneys,'' said spokesman Tim Fitzgerald.

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 said.

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 injuries."

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," he said.

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.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests