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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 was dismissed.

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 monetary damages.

James Tierney, a diocesan attorney, declined to comment on the strategy of contesting the cases.

Mediation urged

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,” Rush said.

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.”

The differences

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 alleged improprieties.

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 court.

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 priest.

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 said.

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 [email protected]

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests