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  Miami Archdiocese Pays $425,000 in Lawsuit Alleging New Bishop Ignored Molestation

By Noaki Schwartz nschwartz@sun-sentinel.com
Sun-Sentinel [Miami FL]
January 9, 2004

Miami - Less than a month before the Miami Archdiocese ordained Bishop Felipe Estevez on Wednesday, it spent $425,000 settling a lawsuit that accused him of standing by as three girls were molested in his church.

The sisters, now in their 20s, sued the archdiocese and the Church of St. Agatha in Miami in 2002. In their suit, they alleged that an elderly employee assaulted them on church grounds in 1989.

Estevez knew about the abuse at the time it occurred, according to the suit, but it was not until a decade later that he assured the parents he would contact archdiocese officials about the problem. Then, in 2000, the court documents say, Estevez read the parents a letter saying the statute of limitations had passed and that there was nothing the parents could do.

On Thursday, church officials and a lawyer for the three women confirmed the settlement.

Estevez could not be reached for comment, but archdiocese spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta said the timing of the settlement had nothing to do with his ordination this week. She said Estevez did not learn of the abuse until 1999 and immediately followed church protocol, which required him to report the allegations to his superiors.

"We knew Father Estevez would become bishop [when we settled] but the lawsuit had been around longer than that," Agosta said. "This case was on the books for a while."

A leading critic of the Catholic Church said it was "beyond disappointment" that the archdiocese would settle the case and then make Estevez a bishop.

"Had the suit settled for $5,000 they might have said, `We think there was no abuse or cover-up but it's cheaper to go this route,'" said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "That it was almost a half-million says clearly they wanted all this to go away quietly, which is what they've always wanted and usually gotten."

News of the settlement comes during an uplifting week for the church.

On Tuesday, auditors hired to review the Roman Catholic dioceses' efforts to prevent sexual abuse commended the archdiocese for its commitment to openness and transparency. The following day, Estevez, former spiritual director at St. Vincent de Paul Seminary west of Boynton Beach, was ordained auxiliary bishop of Miami during a packed, two-hour ceremony at St. Mary Cathedral.

As the only auxiliary bishop in Miami, Estevez will assist Archbishop John C. Favalora in the running of the archdiocese. The church plans to fill two other auxiliary positions.

The lawsuit was filed in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court in July 2002 against the archdiocese.

The suit, which did not name Estevez as a defendant, claimed the abuse of the then 8-, 9- and 10-year-old girls began in 1989 after St. Agatha officials hired Juan Marcello Sastre to do some carpentry. Church officials said he was a volunteer.

Court records show that in 1972 Sastre was convicted of lewd and lascivious assault on a child and was put on five years' probation. Sastre, now in his mid-80s, said he never molested anyone.

The lawsuit claims Estevez saw Sastre and one of the girls leaving a church bathroom after Sastre had molested her, but did nothing. That summer, the suit said, the priest called the parents and warned them that they should protect their daughters because they were becoming "lovely girls."

It wasn't until a decade later, in 1999, that the girls revealed to their parents they had been abused, according to the lawsuit. A June 1999 police report shows that after the parents talked to Estevez, archdiocese attorney Patrick Fitzgerald contacted Miami-Dade police.

But a year later, when the parents again spoke with Estevez, he allegedly told them the statute of limitations had expired and not to contact police, the suit said.

Incidents involving sexual contact with children under 12 generally have no time limit.

Agosta said Estevez handled the matter appropriately.

"He notified the archdiocese, who immediately reported it to the Miami-Dade Police Department and counseling was offered to the victim," she said. "He is the type of man that when he learned of such allegations he would have to act."

In November, when the archdiocese announced that Estevez would become a bishop, the alleged victims' family was stunned, said their attorney, Jeffrey Herman.

"They were outraged," Herman said. "They just felt like they got stabbed in the back."

Shortly thereafter, on Dec. 15, Herman said, the archdiocese and his clients agreed to the settlement. But they still are troubled, he said.

"The girls don't really go to church anymore," he said. "They went from volunteering every week at church to never going."

 
 

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