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  $5.2m Church Deal May Be Just Beginning

By Kevin Eigelbach
The Cincinnati Post [Kentucky]
Downloaded October 13, 2003

Now that the Diocese of Covington has agreed to pay $5.2 million -- an amount greater than all its previous sexual-abuse payouts combined -- to settle two Lexington-area lawsuits, attorneys and officials look to the next case.

It is sobering.

The Cincinnati firm of Waite, Schneider, Bayless and Chesley is pursuing a separate class-action suit against the diocese in Boone Circuit Court on behalf of all victims of sexual abuse by priests in the past 50 years.

Attorney Stan Chesley believes that at least 40 priests -- more than one out of every 10 in the diocese during that time -- sexually abused children. He also believes there are up to 1,000 victims.

The Lexington case, first filed asking for $50 million, involved just 27 alleged victims and the agreed payment amounts to about $190,000 per person.

If Chesley's estimate is correct and there are as many as 1,000 victims, a settlement of the same magnitude in this next case could cost the diocese $190 million.

The diocese, however, has said it has received only 158 allegations. That includes 15 received before 1989, 112 received during the 1990s, and 31 since 2000.

Chesley doubted the 158 cases reported to the diocese represent the whole picture of abuse. How many 12- or 13-year-olds would have come forward with accusations against their priests? he asked.

The Diocese's decision to settle the Lexington-area lawsuits "set the bar," said Chesley.

"I believe these cases now are going to have a real value, the same value they had in Boston."

In the Boston settlement -- the largest agreed to so far in America -- the Archdiocese of Boston agreed in September to pay $85 million. In another large settlement, victims of ex-priest Rudy Kos received $31 million from the diocese of Dallas in 1998.

In the only sex-abuse case against the diocese of Covington to go to trial to date, a jury in 1995 ordered the diocese to pay $737,000 to a Fort Thomas man Father Earl Bierman abused in the 1970s. Chesley said he thinks the per-victim amount agreed to in the Lexington cases was a bit low.

"These are very, very tragic," he said of sexual abuse cases. "These are lifelong scars that these young people had."

With the announcement of the Lexington settlements, Bishop Roger Foys again apologized to victims of sexual abuse by priests and pledged that the diocese would continue to do all it could to keep children safe.

"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," he said in a written statement.

Attorney Angela Ford, who represented 24 plaintiffs in the largest Lexington case, credited Foys with getting it settled.

"He was committed to helping these victims of abuse. I think he accomplished that goal," she said in a statement.

In late May, a year after the suit was filed, Foys offered to meet with her clients individually, as a pastor. That offer was a turning point in the litigation, Ford said.

"As Angela Ford's statement reveals, the bishop's attitude was essentially a pastoral one," diocesan spokesman Tim Fitzgerald said.

Sixteen of her clients met with Foys, she said, and that gave him a chance to personally hear how devastating the abuse was for many of them.

One of the victims, Libby Jones of Lexington, said Foys was the first priest in 37 years who treated her with dignity, compassion and respect.

Jones, 44, said she was abused from the second grade through the seventh grade by a former priest, Leonard Nienaber, at Mary Queen of the Holy Rosary in Lexington.

At the time, the church and all of Lexington was a part of the Diocese of Covington. That changed in 1988 with the creation of the Diocese of Lexington.

Jones later testified against Nienaber before a grand jury.

The civil authorities believed her, and Nienaber pleaded guilty to sexual abuse in 1994. Then 87, he was sentenced into an alternative sentencing program for members of religious orders.

Church authorities, however, wanted to believe it was an isolated incident.

"I was 7 years old. All I knew was to say he hurt me, and he hurt me bad," she said. "That was the 1960s. People didn't want to believe a Catholic priest could do that."

Foys promised her he would do everything he could to prevent that kind of abuse from happening again, she said. He also promised that if it did, he would move quickly to report it to civil authorities.

The diocese reported in September that it was training its employees and volunteers in a "Protecting God's Children" program designed to provide safe environments for all children and vulnerable adults in its care.

Many other dioceses have adopted the program, including the Lexington diocese.

Jones said she believes Foys sincerely wants things to change for the better.

The settlement also benefits Ford's clients by allowing them not to air their personal tragedies in public, she said. Many still find it hard to talk about what happened and would have had trouble making it through a deposition.

Jones still considers herself a Catholic, she said, but can't bring herself to go back to church yet. She still has nightmares about her abuse, she said.

Ford still has two clients who have not resolved their claims against the diocese, she said, but she plans to try to resolve them the same way.

"I hope this process serves as a model for other dioceses that are still grappling with how to respond," she said.

Priests accused in her lawsuit include Bierman, convicted in 1993 of molesting boys while a teacher at the Covington Latin School and now serving a 20-year prison sentence.

Bierman also was named in the smaller Lexington suit, which involved three victims molested almost 35 years ago at St. Patrick's Church in Maysville.

Covington attorney Barbara Bonar, who represented the three, said her clients were still connected to the diocese and didn't want a contentious legal battle.

"They were grateful the diocese was willing to offer pastoral guidance, counseling and (to) resolve their claims outside litigation," she said.

The diocese reported in August that all the reports of sexual abuse it has received concern events from at least 13 years ago.

Reports of abuse, however, exploded in the 1990s, spurred in part by publicity about Bierman and his prosecution.

Diocese officials actively contacted his former students to see if they had been abused.

In August, the diocese revealed that since 1989, it had spent $1.71 million to counsel victims, pay legal fees and settle uninsured claims.

Also since 1989, its insurance paid $2.67 million to settle claims against the diocese.

Insurance will pay $3.2 million of the Lexington settlements, about 62 percent of the total.

The diocese plans to pay the remaining $1.94 million from its "accumulated savings."

Fitzgerald didn't know when the diocese would pay, or if the payment would be broken up into smaller amounts.

He said it's too early to tell if the settlement will impact the diocese's ability to provide services to the 88,000 Catholics in its 46 parishes.

He has heard no plans for layoffs or cutbacks, as the Archdiocese of Louisville made in June when it agreed to pay $25.7 million to settle 243 lawsuits.

The nearly $2 million the diocese plans to pay to settle the Lexington claims represents about 3 percent of the $57 million in assets it had during fiscal 2001-2002.

Those assets included $39 million worth of investments -- some of them made with the diocese's own money, some invested on behalf of individual parishes and institutions.

They include about $4.5 million worth of buildings such as the diocesan officers in Erlanger, but not individual parishes or schools.

In an interview last summer, Diocese Finance Director Tony Depenbrock told The Post that the diocese had a "pretty strong" financial position with a good ratio of assets to liabilities (2.5 to 1).

 
 

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