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  Suit Puts Wichita Diocese under a Legal Microscope

By Lori Lessner
Wichita Eagle
July 26, 1995

No one disagrees that the Rev. Robert Blanpied sexually abused an 11- yearold boy at a Wichita parish 30 years ago. But officials at the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, which was named in a lawsuit last month, say they should not be held accountable for the actions of one of their own because they did not know about the abuse and therefore could not prevent it. The lawsuit was the first of its kind for the Wichita Diocese, thrusting it into a public predicament that has gripped a growing number of brethren across the country in recent years. The allegations, and the multimillion- dollar lawsuits that often follow, have forced the church to confront sexual abuse by clergy and the way it affects victims, parishioners and the spiritual and financial foundation of the church. Wendell Gravley, now 41 and living in Colorado, took advantage of a 1992 law that allows victims of sexual abuse to sue their abusers years later if they did not previously realize at the time the harm the trauma caused. He has said he is seeking $5 million. The lawsuit parallels another case in Sedgwick County District Court in which two Wichita men are suing a former Salina priest they say abused them for 11 years. They also are suing the Salina Diocese for letting it happen. Many dioceses are losing cases on the grounds that they should have known what their priests were up to, said the Rev. Edward Nunez, vicar general of the Catholic Diocese of Pueblo, Colo. "Maybe it's because we deal with Jesus and God that juries think we can see through walls and watch priests doing this or that, but that's ridiculous," Nunez said. "People can sue anybody these days." The number of misconduct allegations made public against Roman Catholic priests across the United States in the past 10 years ranges between 400 and 1,000, according to lawyers and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Many other cases are not made public. The conference is compiling statistics on the validity of claims against the 53,000 priests and the 188 Roman Catholic dioceses nationwide, but has no concrete numbers because each diocese is autonomous and mayor may not report cases, said Deacon Chris Baumann, who serves as a conference spokesman. "There's no doubt in my mind, all 188 dioceses have been touched by an accusation in one way or another," said Jeffrey Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., attorney who has pursued more than 400 claims of abuse against clergy. He estimated that dioceses have spent more than $500 million to settle abuse claims, noting that the figure does not include how much church officials paid in therapy costs and higher insurance premiums. Nationally, no diocese has had to file bankruptcy because of penalties in sex abuse cases, but several have come close, Baumann said. The Rev. Ronald Gilmore, vicar general of the Wichita Diocese, acknowledged that Gravley's lawsuit would impact the diocese, but he said the burden would not be as great as that felt by other dioceses. He does not know the full impact it could have, he said. Although Gravley's marks the first lawsuit of its kind filed against the Wichita Diocese, Gilmore said he has dealt with a handful of other sex abuse complaints involving adult and child victims in the past 12 years. He would not say how the issues were resolved. A diocese should do whatever it can to counsel abuse victims when valid charges surface, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center. But the wrong people are being punished when dioceses are forced to settle multi-million-dollar claims, he said. "You're not punishing the bishop, and you're not punishing the priest," Reese said. "You're punishing the people of the diocese who give donations to support religious, educational and charitable works. You're depriving schoolchildren and soup kitchens who would otherwise benefit from money given to the diocese." The Wichita Diocese offers counseling to abuse victims and sends its priests into treatment centers, signaling churches' recent willingness to confront the problem. "Twenty years ago the church shook its finger at the priest and then transferred him," Baumann said. "Now we've seen that pedophilia is a disease just like alcohol, and people need treatment. We're on our way to admitting the problem and reporting it." In recent years, church officials also have become more up front with parishioners. "It's natural to feel let down by the wrongdoer and not want to put even a nickel in the weekly offering," Baumann said. "But this affects all the parishioners, and bishops have to explain to them what happened and educate them about the illness. If you want to pull people together, you have to give them something more concrete than prayers." In a letter sent to priests in the Wichita Diocese the day before the lawsuit was filed, Bishop Eugene Gerber wrote that Gravley's allegation "saddens me because of its likely effect on all of you .... I have known you to be 'good and faithful servants' of the Gospel. And now this cloud descends upon you. Please pray for the parties involved and their families." Still, the diocese does not disclose allegations or the reason for a priest's removal other than telling parishioners that he is undergoing psychological treatment unless the accusations have already become public, Gilmore said. The victim's privacy, not the priest's protection, is the motivation, he said. Now that the Gravley case has become public, Gerber will inform parishioners of the allegations in a letter to appear in Friday's diocesan newspaper, Gilmore said. Memo: OTHER CASES Since 1990, the Diocese of Camden, N.J., has paid $3.2 million in out-of-court settlements to people who said they were abused by priests. A lawsuit alleged the diocese conspired to cover up sexual abuse of children by 30 priests in the past 60 years. The Archdiocese of Santa Fe, N.M., has flirted with bankruptcy because more than 100 people are seeking $50 million in damages for sex-abuse charges by 45 to 50 priests. An Akron, Ohio, man who accused a priest of molesting him a decade ago was awarded $1.57 million last year in one of the largest clergy-molestation awards granted in the United States.

 
 

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