Suit Links Suicide, Priest Abuse
Owensboro Diocese Had Paid Woman, Family Says
By Gregory Hall
Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY)
November 7, 2003
The family of a Jefferson County woman who killed herself last spring has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Owensboro, alleging that her suicide resulted from actions of the church, including being contacted by one of the priests who allegedly abused her years ago.
Karen Roby, 50 , fatally shot herself in the chest in the parking lot of McNeely Lake Park, and was pronounced dead early on May 2.
The lawsuit filed by her estate is the first in Kentucky and one of a handful nationally to accuse a diocese of wrongfully contributing to the death of an alleged victim of priest sex abuse.
The lawsuit alleges that Roby was sexually abused by three priests - the Revs. Delmon Clements, Robert Willett and Richard Powers - when they were assigned to SS. Joseph and Paul Catholic Church in Owensboro, where she was a parishioner and student.
The abuse is alleged to have taken place between 1962 and 1970, when Roby was under 18.
No priest with Clements' name is listed on the diocese's Web site. A priest named Delma Clemons is listed as being at St. Jerome Church in Fancy Farm. A handwritten note from Roby to Bishop John J. McRaith filed with the suit names "Delma Clemons."
The lawsuit also says that Roby received $41,000 in 1999 from the diocese in a confidential settlement. The money was returned to the diocese last month, the lawsuit said.
A copy of the settlement agreement, which was signed Nov. 29, 1999, and attached to the lawsuit filed yesterday, says that in exchange for the money, Roby was giving up any legal claims against the diocese, "Clements" and Willett, who is deceased. The release does not mention Powers.
Powers, 71, reached by the newspaper, denied any involvement with Roby and said he didn't know of any accusations against him. "I don't know this woman," he said. "I have had nothing to do with her." Powers is pastor at St. Mary Magdalene Church near Owensboro. Also attached to the lawsuit is a note handwritten by Roby in 2002 to McRaith in which Roby states that while she originally told the diocese that she was 17 when she was abused by Clemons, and 15 when abused by Willett, she now believed she was actually 18 when abused by Clemons.
"I have forgiven him and the church," she wrote. "I would hate to see him lose his ministry because I couldn't remember exactly how old I was. I believe I was 18."
John Cox, an attorney for the estate, said Roby told her brothers that Clemons had contacted her by phone and urged her to say she was 18 when he abused her .
Family members were not available to comment last night, Cox said. Attempts to contact Clemons at St. Jerome by telephone were unsuccessful.
McRaith did not return a call to his office; the chancellor of the diocese referred a reporter to Marvin Nunley, an attorney for the diocese.
NUNLEY SAID he had not seen a copy of the lawsuit. He said any claim that Karen Roby may have had against the diocese was released with the 1999 settlement. "It just appears to me, on the surface, their estate wants another bite at the apple," Nunley said.
He added that the diocese conducted an investigation and believes that anything that may have occurred between Roby and Clemons or Willett took place when she was an adult.
"To our knowledge, Father Powers is absolutely innocent of anything," Nunley said. He declined to comment further, and said he would advise the bishop and the priests not to comment.
Don Cox, one of the attorneys for Peter Roby, who is the administrator of his sister's estate, said yesterday that the 2002 contact with the diocese brought back the psychological trauma that Karen Roby had battled through years of counseling. "In a sense, she paid the ultimate price for these people's wrongs," he said.
While the 1999 release does not mention Powers , John Cox said Roby told a sibling that Powers had abused her. Cox also said Powers is mentioned in Roby's psychological records.
Like the more than 250 other Catholic sexual abuse cases filed in Kentucky since April 2002, the lawsuit alleges that church officials knew of, or should have known of the abuse and concealed it.
ROBY MOVED to Jefferson County by the early 1990s, Cox said. The lawsuit says Roby made her allegations to the church in 1995 and that McRaith, in July of that year, began guaranteeing payment for Roby's in-patient hospitalization at Ten Broeck in Jefferson County. Records from three hospital stays, two in 1995 and one in 1999, are attached to the complaint and list McRaith as guarantor.
Roby was hospitalized about eight times beginning in September 1994 for psychiatric care, the lawsuit says. She had been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, severe depression and paranoid delusions.
The lawsuit claims she lacked the mental capacity to enter into the 1999 agreement, and that as recently as September of that year, the diocese had been advised of Roby's psychiatric status.
The lawsuit also said church officials obtained Roby's signature by telling her that priests who abused her would receive testing and therapy in an institution. The suit claims that never happened.
The lawsuit does not detail Roby's alleged abuse beyond generic terms that are in most of the sexual abuse lawsuits filed in Kentucky in the last two years. But Cox said Roby's parents were sick throughout her youth and as caretaker for her brothers and sisters she was vulnerable to the priests' abuse.
Roby's obituary listed five living siblings.
The lawsuit seeks an unspecified sum for Roby's pain, suffering and medical costs while alive and damages to the estate for wages that she would have earned.
Roby, who never married, was a nurse, according to her death certificate. John Cox said she worked for the American Red Cross.
The wrongful-death lawsuit is at least the third of its kind nationally.
A man filed suit earlier this year against the archdiocese in St. Louis, saying that his son's overdose was a suicide that resulted from being abused in the 1980s by a priest. And in Los Angeles, a couple's lawsuit claims their son hanged himself last year after being abused by a religious brother.
DAVID CLOHESSY, the national director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he is only certain of those two lawsuits.
A wrongful-death case related to priest abuse is "relatively uncommon," he said in a telephone interview. "Sadly, it's not uncommon for abuse victims to take their own lives."
Clohessy said Roby's case also is not unusual, in that she is alleged to have altered her story to help one of the people she accused.
"This case, I think, points out something about survivors that few people realize, which is that many survivors are forgiving and have very mixed feelings toward the perpetrators," he said. "Those mixed feelings can be preyed upon by a shrewd perpetrator ."
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