Rethinking the Response to Clergy Sex Abuse Claims
Victims Wonder Why Rockville Centre Diocese Won't Settle
By Rita Ciolli
Newsday [Long Island NY]
March 5, 2004
David McGuire sat in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center recently, struggling to answer lawyers' questions about the pornography he was shown just before a Long Island priest allegedly sodomized him in 1982, when he was a 12-year-old altar boy. Lawyers for the Diocese of Rockville Centre also have asked him to list the names of the hospitals he went to after his multiple suicide attempts.
Through it all, the former Wall Street financial analyst who prays every morning that he will stay clean, doesn't understand why Bishop William Murphy won't settle the civil lawsuits brought by victims who say they were abused by priests when they were minors. "I am living and reliving the abuse and suicide attempts at the request of his lawyers," McGuire said.
McGuire's question is at the center of the recent findings of an advisory board of prominent Catholics, who recommended last week that dioceses avoid litigation with victims and "earnestly pursue other avenues of resolving allegations of abuse."
Murphy, the leader of Long Island Catholics, is studying the report and will consult with his advisers on how to proceed, said his spokesman Rev. James Vlaun. He declined to say whether the diocese would change its current strategy in court.
"The diocese will act properly with regard to legal actions against it and will have to respond legally to legal issues," the bishop wrote in a Saturday e-mail response to the report. "We do so without ever ceasing to offer therapy and pastoral care to any and every victim regardless of whether or not an individual is involved in litigation with the Diocese."
However, in a Feb. 17 "Letter to the Faithful," Murphy said the diocese will continue its efforts to dismiss claims filed last year by 35 men who allege that 17 priests abused them over the past four decades. All of the cases have been filed too late under state law. Lawyers argue the cases should be allowed because the hierarchy of the diocese fraudulently suppressed and distorted the sexual abuse problem to protect the church from criminal and civil liability.
Murphy has insisted the fraud claim is untrue and that the diocese is entitled to clear its reputation. "It is the right of every person and institution in our country to defend one's innocence until a judgment can be made by the proper legal authority," Murphy wrote in his letter. In the bishop's accounting of the past problems on Long Island, he disclosed that 132 abuse allegations were made against 42 diocesan priests and 24 priests or religious brothers of other dioceses or religious orders since 1957.
The U.S. Catholic Church's treatment of victims was heavily criticized last week in "A Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church," which recommended that all dioceses re-examine their legal strategy to make sure "a pastoral response takes precedence over legal tactics."
The review board denounced the church's past legal strategy. "The Church cannot and should not hide behind its lawyers or the law blindly and in all circumstances," the report warned.
The board also found bishops relied too heavily on the advice of attorneys "whose tactics often were inappropriate for the church and which tended to compound the effects of the abuse that already had been inflicted." It criticized "inappropriate defenses that could be construed as blaming the victim ... "
Those words rang familiar to the mother of the teenage boy who was sodomized by Rev. Michael Hands, who pleaded guilty last year to abusing the teen. The family has filed a $150-million lawsuit against the diocese. In its defense, the diocese argues in court papers that the "culpable conduct of the plaintiff's parents brought about the alleged injuries . .. "
While raising arguments might be standard procedure in the give and take of litigation, to the mother of Hands' victim, it means little has changed. "I don't see how things are going in a different direction. I am having great difficulty hearing Bishop Murphy's apology because his actions are speaking much louder than his words," she said.
In another case involving Matthew Maiello, the former youth director at St. Raphael Church in East Meadow, two of his victims are suing the diocese for a total of $150 million. Maiello pleaded guilty in 2003, admitting to intercourse and oral sex with three girls and a boy in his parish office. In answering those charges, the diocesan attorneys say the "culpable conduct" of the teens should reduce any damages awarded.
"To even hint that it is the children's fault is horrible," said the father of one of the girls. "These kids were 14 and 15 years old; they were minors," he said. "What environment did they set up that allows this to happen?"
The diocese and its longtime lawyers have a policy of not commenting on pending cases, said George Repetti, a partner in the Williston Park law firm of Mulholland, Minion and Roe, which is defending the abuse cases. George Rice, the diocesan attorney who has represented the Rockville Centre church for more than three decades, also declined to comment.
Murphy's stated reason for continuing the legal fight is to rebut the charge of fraud. However, Michael Dowd, an attorney for some of the victims, said claiming fraud is the only way to get around the legal hurdle that the cases were filed too late under state law. He said the fraud claim would be withdrawn if the diocese agreed to settle. "Their refusal to settle on the allegations of fraud is intellectually dishonest," said Dowd, who is also handling the Hands and Maiello lawsuits.
Dowd also is critical of the diocese for saying the abuse didn't take place or that church officials weren't aware of it. In those court filings, the diocese either denies any abuse took place or "denies knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief as to whether each of the individual defendant priests abused plaintiffs."
Murphy is trying to have it both ways, said Dowd. "You can't realistically say it didn't happen. If it didn't happen then why in the world is Murphy apologizing all the time and why were these priests removed?" he said.
To bolster the fraud charge, the plantiffs are relying on a Suffolk County grand jury report last year that found top diocese officials used "deception and intimidation" in dealing with those abused by its priests. If Nassau State Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cozzens agrees with that argument, the lawsuits can proceed and the victims would be in a better negotiating position.
A similar lawsuit filed by Dowd on behalf of 39 victims against the Diocese of Brooklyn in Queens State Supreme Court was thrown out last year and is currently on appeal.
Cozzens, who is overseeing the Long Island abuse cases, encouraged settlement talks but the diocese refused to consider it, said Dowd and Melanie Little, a Garden City attorney who also sued the diocese on behalf of 17 victims. Cozzens said court rules bar him from discussing the case, said Dan Bagnuola, a court spokesman.
Meanwhile, the legal skirmishes continue, with Cozzens recently denying a request by Little to release minutes of the testimony heard by the Suffolk grand jury.
The diocese's "Uninsured Perils Fund" was created in 1986 by a tax on parishes to cover the costs from abuse cases. The diocese has already spent $3.8 million for legal settlements and therapy and Murphy said the remaining $10 million in the special fund will be used for victims "until it is exhausted." The diocese also has been paying its attorneys' fees from the fund.
"We are not looking to bankrupt the church over this litigation, we are not looking to stick our hands in the basket going around. We are talking about money that has already been set aside," said Little, noting that another eight men and one woman will be soon added to the list of plantiffs.
Some dioceses around the country have created settlement funds, although the specific arrangements differ. The Archdiocese of Louisville, Ky., agreed in June to pay $25.7 million to 243 people who were part of a class action lawsuit charging the church with fraud. In September, the Archdiocese of Boston agreed to pay $85 million to 552 people who had sued the church, the largest settlement to date.
In Cincinnati, the archdiocese set up a $3-million fund as settlement of a criminal prosecution against the church. Abuse victims, whether they already had filed a suit or hadn't yet come forward, are entitled to file a claim. In all those settlements, victims whose cases may have been too old under state law were allowed to participate in the settlements.
"If you follow the trends in what is getting paid, the money only gets appropriate when the church gets afraid that the victims could get successful at the trial court level," said Matthew Garretson, an attorney who designed the payment system in Louisville and is overseeing the Cincinnati claims tribunal. "The only protection that lawyers can give the church is to take a hardball stance to prevent these cases from going forward in court. If they go to trial, a jury wouldn't be able to print enough money for these victims."
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