Trial Set for Covington Diocese Sex-Abuse Lawsuit
Clergy Molestation Claims First in U.S. Filed As Class Action
By Bruce Schreiner
Associated Press, carried in The Courier-Journal [Burlington KY]
Downloaded April 7, 2004
BURLINGTON, Ky. - A judge yesterday scheduled an Oct. 25 trial for the nation's first class-action lawsuit over allegations of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests.
Senior Judge John Potter set the trial date at the end of a hearing in which lawyers for the plaintiffs and the Diocese of Covington wrangled over several pretrial motions.
Potter did not rule on a motion by plaintiffs' lawyers to force the diocese to turn over records it considers privileged or on a motion to allow several people to opt out of the class-action suit.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of alleged molestation victims in the Northern Kentucky diocese since the 1950s. It contends the diocese mishandled claims against its clergymen.
The suit in the heavily Catholic region was certified as a class action by another judge in October.
PLAINTIFFS' LAWYER Robert Steinberg pushed for a trial date during the hearing yesterday in Boone Circuit Court.
"I would think that the one thing that would facilitate settlement in this case would be a firm trial date," Steinberg said. "Without one, I think settlement is unlikely."
Potter had previously urged both sides to try to settle out of court.
Carrie Huff, a Chicago lawyer representing the diocese, said the diocese had responded "in good faith" to Potter's request.
After the hearing, Potter met privately with the attorneys for about 45 minutes.
Afterward, Steinberg said he was eager to try the case if a settlement isn't reached. "The public needs to see what's happened," he said.
Huff declined comment to reporters.
Plaintiffs want to force the diocese to turn over records Steinberg said involve complaints by alleged sex-abuse victims and the psychiatric reports of priests and alleged victims.
Another plaintiffs' motion seeks records from treatment centers around the country to determine whether any Covington diocesan priests were treated as sex abusers.
MEANWHILE, attorney Barbara Bonar asked Potter to allow seven plaintiffs to opt out of the suit.
"They want to peacefully and confidentially resolve their claims," Bonar said.
Bonar served as co-counsel in the lawsuit until December, when the lead plaintiff decided to drop out as a class representative and settle after a favorable meeting with Bishop Roger Foys.
Potter set another pretrial hearing for July 12.
The Covington diocese spans 14 counties and includes 89,000 parishioners, many of them in the Kentucky suburbs of Cincinnati.
The diocese previously covered a broad swath of Central and Eastern Kentucky that is now part of the Lexington diocese, which was founded in 1988. Steinberg has said most alleged abuse occurred before 1988, and the areas formerly part of the Covington diocese are covered by the lawsuit.
Plaintiffs' lawyers said previously they had the names of 110 victims. Steinberg did not give an updated number yesterday but said the potential victims could number in the thousands.
DIOCESE SPOKESMAN Tim Fitzgerald said yesterday that the diocese has received allegations of sexual misconduct against 35 of its 364 priests since 1950. The complaints were from 205 people, 72 of whom named one priest, he said.
Of those 35 priests, 16 are dead and the rest either have been defrocked or permanently removed from active ministry, he said.
Early this year, the diocese said it had reached settlements with 39 sex-abuse victims since September. The diocese said it had paid $8.3million to those victims.
Steinberg said yesterday that he had received complaints against 57 clergy or others affiliated with the diocese.
At the hearing, Huff said the plaintiffs in the class action should be identified. She said the diocese needs the information to know the full extent of the allegations.
"It's just really almost inconceivable to imagine agreeing to a settlement in a case like this without knowing how many people you're talking about," Huff said.
Plaintiffs' lawyers replied that identifying the accusers would discourage people from stepping forward with allegations.
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