MO--Second-ever clergy "contract breach" suit is precedent-setting and encouraging, SNAP says
For immediate release: Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015
A woman who was sexually abused by a Jesuit who became the president of St. Louis University has become the second victim to settle a “breach of contract” case against Catholic officials. We applaud her for her courage, her persistence and her concern for others who may be hurt or betrayed by Jesuits.
These highly unusual abuse and breach of contract lawsuits are very encouraging. We hope and believe other victims will start using this tactic.
--In this just-settled case, a New York woman was sexually violated by Fr. Daniel O’Connell (then a professor, later the president of SLU), who is believed to still be living in St. Louis. According to the New York Times, Fr. O’Connell “was accused of sexually assaulting a 20-year-old college student in 1983.” In 2003, his Jesuit supervisors “found the accusation credible,” paid her $181,000 settlement and agreed to remove O'Connell “from a teaching post at another Jesuit institution” and bar him “from public ministry” or any activity in which he could develop a relationship with a woman.
In 2010, this woman filed a suit accusing O’Connell’s Jesuit supervisors of breaking that promise by letting him teach in Oklahoma, engage in public ministry in Germany, and speak at symposia and seminars at several universities.
That suit has just settled out of court for $82,000. It was being handled by Judge Phil Heagney. A copy of the suit is here: http://www.rmblawyers.com/Amended%20Petition.pdf
A second victim of Fr. O’Connell has also sued him, the Jesuits and SLU. That suit is pending. It’s being handled by the same attorney.
Neither of the women lives in St. Louis. Both are identified in the suits with pseudonyms.
For almost 20 years, Fr. O’Connell worked at Loyola University in Chicago. He also taught at Georgetown University in Washington DC and Fordham University in New York City. (All three, like SLU, are Jesuit institutions.)
--In the FIRST “breach of contract” case, an arbitrator ordered then-Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn to pay $1.1 million to 40+ victims of clergy sex crimes because he broke his pledges to improve how he deals with abuse cases.
As best we can tell, there are no other cases like this in which victims have successfully held Catholic officials responsible in court for breaking the promises they made during settlements. These are significant because they may will deter more Catholic officials from breaking the promises they make to victims.
In four sentences, here's what happened in that KC case:
1) In 2008, 47 victims settled child sex abuse and cover up lawsuits against Finn and his diocese. As part of that deal, they insisted that Finn commit to 19 non-economic child safety measures.
2) In October 2011, 44 of those victims formally charged that Finn broke many of those child safety measures, in part by keeping two credibly accused predator priests in ministry (Fr. Michael Tierney and Fr. Shawn Ratigan) and by not reporting suspicions and knowledge of child sex crimes promptly to law enforcement
In March of 2014, an arbitrator – harshly criticizing KC Catholic officials – awarded $1.1 million to the victims.
In July of 2014, that decision was disclosed.
Here's why this first “breach of contract” case is so ground-breaking and important.
We suspect that hundreds of clergy sex abuse victims have reached settlements with Catholic officials that include child protection commitments. We suspect that many of them have not been closely monitored.
We hope the arbitrator's award will prompt many victims and their attorneys to look hard at whether these pledges are being kept. If bishops are breaking their promises, we hope victims will file more suits like this.
We hope this will also prod more victims to push hard for child safety provisions when they're discussing settlement possibilities. Catholic officials would rather just write a check. But many victims find it more healing when they are able to force Catholic officials to formally pledge to take real abuse prevention steps.
We fear, however, that the arbitrator's outcome may make Catholic officials even more reluctant to agree to child safety measure when they settle abuse lawsuits.
Finn's a smart man with plenty of smart lawyers and public relations advisers. He voluntarily signed this contract with victims, pledging to take steps to stop abuse and cover ups. Finn broke that contract, repeatedly, rubbing even more salt into the already deep and still fresh wounds of dozens of struggling men and women who had already been sexually violated as kids by priests and re-victimized by callous Catholic officials.
If Finn had no intention of honoring his promises, he shouldn't have made them.
Victims' courage and compassion made this contract happen. Now, victims' courage and compassion are enforcing it. Again, we applaud these brave men and women who are pioneering a new approach to deterring wrongdoing by holding wrongdoers responsible for their wrongdoing, even if they are powerful prelates.
NOTE - Attorneys for the diocese include David Frye ([email protected], 816-292-2000, 816-460-5726, 816-460-5732) and Mara Cohara ([email protected], 816-292-2000, 816-460-5760, 816-460-5413). Finn's attorney is Spencer Brown (816-421-4000, http://www.deacylaw.com/ourattorneys/spencer-j-brown/)
Attorneys for the victims include Rebecca Randles (816 510 2704 cell, [email protected]), Sarah Brown (913 269 6226 cell, 816 931 9901,[email protected]), both of Kansas City MO and Gregg Meyers of St. Paul MN (843 324 1589 cell, 651 227 9990, [email protected]).
The arbitrator was Hollis Hanover of Kansas City, MO (816 942 2204, [email protected]). According to his website he spent 20 years as an insurance defense trial lawyer and ten years representing plaintiffs.