Victim: Church Needed to Admit Wrongdoing
Plea Deal Follows Months of Conflict, Numerous Lawsuits
Channelcincinnati.com [Cincinnati OH]
Downloaded November 21, 2003
CINCINNATI -- An attorney for clients alleging abuse by priests hopes the Cincinnati archdiocese's no contest plea on charges relating to sex abuse allegations will prompt other prosecutors to aggressively pursue similar cases.
"I'm hopeful this really emboldens other prosecutors to really take this and carry this ball, and hopefully this is the start of some momentum," said Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn. attorney whose firm says it has handled more than 700 cases of sexual abuse by clergy in 20 years. "It sends a message across the country for other prosecutors to take a look at these crimes."
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati on Thursday pleaded no contest to charges of failing to tell authorities about sex abuse allegations against priests and was fined $10,000 for the five misdemeanor counts. The no contest plea was not an admission of guilt, but an agreement on the facts in the case that means that the archdiocese won't fight the charges.
Anderson is a co-counsel for at least 67 people who say they were abused by priests in the Cincinnati archdiocese. He was disappointed that the penalties were not stiffer and that details of the abuse allegations were not revealed.
"On balance, it's a disappointment, even though it's a step in the right direction," he said of the court action.
The deal ends a nearly two-year investigation by prosecutors into whether priests in the archdiocese sexually abused children and whether church officials failed a legal responsibility to report specific cases of abuse. The five counts covered offenses that allegedly occurred from 1978 to 1982.
James E. Tierney, a former Maine attorney general who teaches law at Columbia University, said the case may have significance beyond Cincinnati.
"Other dioceses will be aware of this case and other prosecutors certainly will study it to see if it fits their law," he said Thursday night.
Tierney, who consults with attorneys around the country, said he thinks the most striking aspect of the case was Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk's personal appearance in court to answer the charges.
"I think it was a very brave thing for him to do, when he could have sent a representative," he said. "It was really an extraordinary action."
At a news conference after the hearing, the archbishop apologized to abuse victims, their families and the community.
"A few years ago, I never thought that it would be necessary for a bishop to be making apologies like these," he said. "But it is necessary, and I offer my expressions of sorrow and regret with the deepest intensity of which I am capable."
As part of the agreement with prosecutors, the archdiocese will institute reporting safeguards that are even stronger than those required by Ohio law. The archdiocese also will establish a $3 million fund to compensate victims of sexual abuse, even those who cannot sue because the statute of limitations had expired.
Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen said the lapse of time since the alleged offenses occurred proved very frustrating and prevented him from prosecuting several credible cases. He maintained, however, that the settlement "sends a clear and unequivocal message that the archdiocese has been held responsible."
Christy Miller, 35, of suburban West Chester, disagrees. She is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against the archdiocese and a priest.
"They didn't admit to anything," Miller said. "They didn't apologize for anything. They still aren't accountable for anything."
Archdiocese attorney Mark VanderLaan said it hopes the fund will help victims move forward, but anyone taking advantage of it will not be allowed to pursue a civil suit.
Konrad Kircher, the Mason attorney representing more than 60 people who claim they were abused by priests in the Cincinnati archdiocese, said he will inform his clients of their options.
"But I think it is insulting that the archdiocese has unilaterally decided what the settlement fund should be and is trying to force victims into a fairly meager settlement," he said.
Cincinnati's case is the third nationally in which church leaders have struck a deal with prosecutors to avoid a criminal trial.
In Phoenix, former Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien avoided facing obstruction of justice charges by acknowledging that he concealed abuse allegations against priests
In New Hampshire, prosecutors were pursuing misdemeanor charges under the state's child endangerment laws when church officials agreed to a settlement.
Investigations of alleged sexual abuse by priests are under way in several states, and hundreds of civil lawsuits have been filed against individual priests. Most also name the church and its leaders.
The Cincinnati Archdiocese, which covers 19 southwest Ohio counties, has a membership of 515,000, or 18 percent of the regional population. It has 543 priests and 237 parishes.
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