Legal Issues

 Legal Headlines



Abuse Victims Demand More Than a Check From the Church

By Alan Cooperman - Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 24, 2007

In life, Neal and Jean Evans were very close to their parish priest. In death, less than 20 feet of gently sloping grass separated their graves from his in the Roman Catholic section of Forest Lawn cemetery, just outside of Asheville, N.C.

The Evanses never realized that the priest, William J. Kuder, had serially molested three of their sons beginning when each turned 9. But the sons certainly knew; they found the sight of his tombstone so painful that for years they avoided visiting the cemetery altogether.

On Feb. 6, as part of a legal settlement with the Evans brothers, the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh unearthed the priest's remains and moved them to another cemetery five miles away.

"It was like desecrating my parents to have him there," said Jim Evans, 61, a general contractor in Greensboro, N.C. "Because they never knew in life. But you know that in the hereafter, they knew."

Across the country, victims of sexual abuse by priests are becoming more assertive in demanding compensation other than money. Church officials, reeling from an estimated $1.5 billion in settlements and other costs related to the sex abuse scandal, are often willing to oblige.

"The most valuable benefit from these lawsuits for the victims is that the world validates that it happened, and it wasn't their fault," said Marci A. Hamilton, a professor at Cardozo School of Law in New York who has advised victims. "That's usually more important to them than money, and they're becoming more innovative about getting it."

In January, Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., reached a settlement with more than 100 victims that calls for payments of at least $48 million. But their attorney, Tim Kosnoff, said the victims had insisted that the first order of business was a list of nonfinancial items.

"We said: 'We're not going to negotiate any number with you, ever, unless you agree to these non-monetary demands. And we wrote them in such a way that they were quite unusual, revolutionary, drastic by Catholic Church standards," Kosnoff said.

Among the conditions agreed to by Skylstad is that each of the Spokane victims will be given a chance to speak publicly in the parish where he or she was abused. If they prefer, victims can publish the stories of their abuse in the diocesan newspaper.

Skylstad, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, also will send a letter of apology to each victim and "will publicly support a complete elimination of all criminal statutes of limitation for child sexual abuse," according to the settlement, which is under review by a bankruptcy court because the diocese has filed for Chapter 11 protection.

One of the Spokane victims, Mark Mains, 44, said he is eager to speak in his old parish, particularly because of a recent experience addressing a gathering of Spokane Catholics.

After Skylstad made some nostalgic remarks about a retreat center that the diocese may sell to pay claims, Mains told the group that he, too, has strong memories of the place.

"I said I remember being on a confirmation retreat there, and the night of that retreat Father Patrick O'Donnell crawled into my sleeping bag and raped me," Mains said. "You could practically hear their jaws drop."

"One of the most powerful experiences I've had," he continued, "was to stand up in front of those people who . . . felt we were trying to take their churches and property away. It was amazing to me how their anger dissipated when we told them what happened to us."

Victims' attorneys say one of the most common demands is a personal apology, usually from a bishop. Before the Archdiocese of Washington settled with 16 victims in December, it promised each of them a private meeting with either Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick or his successor, Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl.

In Davenport, Iowa, victims got an apology from Bishop William E. Franklin and a monument in front of the diocese's headquarters. It consists of an old-fashioned stone for milling flour, along with a quotation from Jesus: ". . . if anyone causes one of these little ones who trust in me to lose faith, it would be better for that person to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around the neck."

Lawyer Craig A. Levien, who negotiated on behalf of 37 Davenport victims, said the diocese readily agreed to the monument but "flatly said no" to victims' demands for its files on abusers. Other lawyers said they have met similar resistance around the country.

Mark Chopko, general counsel for the bishops conference, said that dioceses "have to protect employees' privacy, just like any other employer." But he said non-monetary compensation has become routine since 2001, when two California dioceses agreed to set up a toll-free hotline as part of a $5.2 million settlement with Ryan DiMaria, who had been abused by his school principal.

"It's a human response to a human problem," Chopko said.

In North Carolina, the Evans brothers did not know what to expect when they broached the idea of exhuming a priest.

But the Diocese of Raleigh, which also agreed to pay the three brothers $250,000 each, took their request seriously. "It was felt that if this was part of what was needed for the brothers to be healed, then it would be carried forth," said spokesman Frank Morock.

The main stumbling block, Morock added, was that Kuder died so long ago -- 1960 -- that it took months to track down his next of kin and obtain permission for the move.

W. Neal Evans, 64, the oldest of the brothers, said Kuder was a frequent visitor in their home in the 1950s. Their father was chairman of the parish council at Kuder's church, St. Joan of Arc, and was pleased when the priest took an interest in the boys, he recalled.

Although the abuse was "horrific" and continued from the time each boy was 9 until 13, Neal Evans said, Kuder used the confessional to keep it secret. Twisting Catholic doctrine, which provides that priests may not reveal what is said in a confession, the priest told the boys that anything they confessed, they had to keep secret.

"Kuder was a master," Evans said. "He would rape us, and then he would hurry us off to another priest to confess. . . . What I think about now is, how come none of those other guys ever said, 'Tell your parents!' "

Last weekend, Neal, Jim and Bob Evans, accompanied by their wives, visited the graves of their mother, who died in 1976, and father, who died in 1988, for the first time in many years.

They put their arms around one another, but they did not cry.

"It was a joyous occasion," Neal said.


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests