Covington Diocese Will Pay $5million
27 Victims of Abuse by Priests to Share Money
By Smith Peter
Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY)
October 12, 2003
The Diocese of Covington has agreed to pay nearly $5.2 million in two settlements with 27 people who accused at least six priests of sexual abuse in the 1960s and 1970s at parishes in Lexington and Northern Kentucky.
The agreements, announced yesterday, represent a $4,415,000 settlement with 24 victims and a $750,000 settlement with three others. The total payout is the second-largest by a Roman Catholic diocese in Kentucky history. The largest is the Archdiocese of Louisville's $25.7 million settlement in June with 243 victims.
The Covington settlements follow meetings between Bishop Roger J. Foys and many of the victims, who included 22 plaintiffs in a Fayette Circuit Court lawsuit and five others who brought out-of-court claims against the diocese.
"I am very pleased that we are able to take this important step, and I pray that it will be the beginning of healing and reconciliation with those who have been deeply hurt as children by priests," Foys said in a statement.
"Once again, I offer my profound apology to these and to all victims of sexual abuse by priests, and assure them that we will continue to do all we can to keep our children safe," Foys said.
Lexington attorney Angela Ford, who represents the 24 victims in the larger settlement, said Foys' decision to meet with victims represented "a turning point" in the case.
"I hope this process serves as a model for other dioceses that are still grappling with how to respond," she said.
While it is unusual for parties to a pending lawsuit to talk face-to-face rather than through lawyers, 18 clients chose to accept Foys' offer to meet, according to Ford and Covington attorney Barbara Bonar, who represented three of the plaintiffs.
DANIEL LUCAS, one of the victims, said he found the process helpful.
"I'm cautious but optimistic that the Catholic Diocese of Covington has recognized that abuse has occurred and reconciling and healing the abused is far more important than any image they can hope to portray," he said.
Lucas is one of 18 people in the settlement who allege they were abused by the Rev. Leonard Nienaber in Lexington. Nienaber, who is in his 90s, has been serving a 10-year sentence at a treatment center in Missouri following his conviction on 10 abuse charges in 1993.
Lucas said he was candid with Foys and other church officials about his alleged abuse by Nienaber.
"I think we really opened their eyes to the impact of it," Lucas said. "It's a shame they had to wait for the children to grow up" for such a reconciliation to take place.
DIOCESAN SPOKESMAN Tim Fitzgerald said yesterday that $3,225,000 of the settlements will be covered by insurance and $1,940,000 will be paid out of the diocese's savings. In comparison, the Archdiocese of Louisville had no insurance coverage for its settlement, though insurance did pay its attorneys' fees. The Louisville archdiocese covered the settlement costs with unrestricted funds from its investments, and it has implemented major budget cuts because of the loss of investment income.
Fitzgerald said the Covington diocese's payout will not be funded by property sales, annual fund-raising appeals or parish assessments, though he said it is too soon to say whether the settlements will affect the diocese's budget.
The settlements put to rest one of two major litigations against the Diocese of Covington. On Oct. 1, a Boone County judge granted class-action status to another lawsuit filed on behalf of victims of sexual misconduct by priests over the past 50 years.
The Covington settlement is the latest of numerous multi million-dollar payments being negotiated by dioceses around the country in the wake of the unprecedented exposure of sexual-abuse cases since January 2002, most of them dating back decades.
THE ARCHDIOCESE of Boston last month reached an $85 million settlement with 552 people, while the Archdiocese of Chicago agreed to pay $8 million to 15 people earlier this month.
Ford's clients included 22 people who sued the diocese in Fayette Circuit Court and two others who brought their claims directly to the diocese. Eighteen of Ford's clients accused Nienaber of abusing them in the 1960s and 1970s while he worked at Mary Queen of the Holy Rosary School in Lexington.
The other clients accused five other priests. Two of them, the Rev. Joseph Pilger and the Rev. Earl Bierman, have been convicted for sexual abuse, while a third has been permanently removed from ministry as a result of abuse accusations.
Those who had filed suit originally named both the dioceses of Lexington and Covington in their complaint. But a Fayette Circuit Court judge released the Diocese of Lexington from the suit in May because the alleged abuse occurred before it was created in 1988, mainly out of counties that were formerly part of the Diocese of Covington.
FORD SAID SHE and diocesan attorneys would inform the court of the settlements.
While the average payment per plaintiff in the settlements would be $191,000 before lawyers' fees are deducted, Ford said payments were negotiated individually based on such factors as the severity of the abuse and its impact on the victims.
She declined to reveal the range of payments. She also would not disclose what percentage of legal fees she would receive.
Fees vary in such cases. In Louisville, attorney William McMurry is slated to receive 40 percent of the payments to his clients, who represent the bulk of the 243 people sharing in the $25.7 million settlement. Depending on the type of abuse, the Louisville plaintiffs will receive between $15,333 and $175,000 before legal fees under a plan awaiting court approval.
Ford said she received some outside criticism for entering direct negotiations with the diocese but said many of her clients felt this was the best way to deal with the abuse.
She said most wanted to avoid a public court battle or sought to reconnect with their religion.
"For some, the impact of the abuse was slight and for others it had created a lifetime of pain," she said in a statement. "Lives were devastated by the betrayal and breach of trust. Families were torn apart. The victims were often from a deeply religious family and were targeted by their abuser based on their absolute trust and deference to their spiritual authorities. Others were just vulnerable kids."
Linda Welsh of Asheville, N.C., who was one of the people involved in the settlements, applauded the agreements in a statement released by Ford.
"THIS SETTLEMENT gives me an opportunity to say to the victims of sexual abuse: speak up and speak the truth," she said.
In a report sent to Covington-area Catholics in August, the diocese said it has "reasonable cause to believe" that 8 percent of its priests sexually abused one or more minors in the past 50 years. The figure represents 30 of 372 diocesan priests in those years.
Two of those who joined in the Fayette County lawsuit chose not to participate in the settlement talks, Ford said. Their cases remain pending.
In June, the Diocese of Covington settled another lawsuit filed by two former employees who claimed they were fired for reporting sexual assaults and harassment. While most of the settlement was confidential, the diocese confirmed it paid $50,000 over one of the plaintiffs' claims of childhood sexual abuse by a priest in the 1970s.
In 1995, the diocese paid a $750,000 judgment in connection with a lawsuit by another victim of Bierman.
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