Archdiocese Hired Lawyer to Reach out to Accusers in Sex Scandal
By Claudia Rowe
Seattle Post-Intelligencer [Seattle WA]
September 27, 2004
While a tidal wave of sexual-abuse lawsuits and legal threats cripples Roman Catholic dioceses across the country, Seattle appears to exist in a rare state of grace.
Multimillion-dollar settlements with victims of priest abuse have forced bishops to sell church property, dip into emergency accounts or declare outright bankruptcy. But Seattle has escaped such dire scenarios, paying most claimants about $50,000 each -- a fraction of the average of $400,000 per agreement in Portland, where the church filed for Chapter 11 in July.
The Seattle Archdiocese, which was first in the nation to hire someone specifically charged with reaching out to victims, trumpets its proactive, mediation-based approach as the key to keeping costs down. But many of those who report their painful, humiliating stories to Jessie Dye have no idea that the church's pastoral outreach coordinator is also a lawyer.
A dozen victims contacted by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer said their settlement negotiations had left them feeling revictimized decades after the original abuse. The church had used mercenary bargaining tactics, they said, coercing them to accept lowball settlements or sign gag orders trading free therapy for their silence. None had known that Dye was a lawyer until after the fact, and many said she actively discouraged them from hiring their own counsel.
"That speaks volumes about whether Seattle's interest is genuinely victims or whether it's legal defense," said David Clohessy, director of the national group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
Officials at the archdiocese defend their program, saying no accuser has been coerced or misled.
Michael Patterson, who handles the archdiocese's legal defense, was dismayed by the complaints. Settlement figures here and in other dioceses have increased since the issue of sexual abuse by priests became front-page news in 2002, he allowed, but Seattle's negotiations -- ongoing since the late 1980s -- had always been made in good faith.
"They were settling for amounts that were reasonable at the time, given the climate, and obviously the climate has changed," Patterson said.
Nevertheless, a man in Lacey, incensed by the process, has filed a lawsuit charging that his negotiations with the church were marked by fraud, legal malpractice, violation of consumer protection laws and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
"She was real compassionate at first," he said of Dye. "I thought it was like my big sister was talking to me. I told her, 'You're the first person from that church that's ever listened to me, and I trust you.' "
Now he questions the wisdom of stepping forward at all.
Initially, the man's wife called a confidential hot line to report that during the 1960s, her husband was twice abused by the Rev. James McGreal in Olympia. According to the couple, Dye drove down to meet with them one Saturday morning in the summer of 2003 and sat in their living room, listening as the burly, bearded carpenter told his story while downing tumblers of scotch. A friendly, down-to-earth mother of two, Dye took notes, offered counseling at the church's expense and suggested that they could work out financial restitution for his suffering.
"I told her I was thinking about calling a lawyer and she said, 'Oh no, don't do that. A lawyer will end up taking all the money you get,' " the man recalled. "She really discouraged us from getting a lawyer."
When he asked Dye whether she was an attorney, she denied it, he said.
In December, four months after the first phone call, Dye arranged to meet the man and his wife at Southcenter Starbucks and hand over a $100,000 settlement check from the church. There, between walking her dog in the parking lot and making small talk about Christmas plans, she asked both to sign a half-page release absolving the archdiocese of "all claims, demands, actions, and judgments" they might ever have against it.
The couple scribbled their names and afterward, they say, Dye mentioned that the agreement also terminated all church-funded therapy. Several months later when reading about a series of McGreal-related settlements brokered by a private lawyer -- in which 16 victims received more than $500,000 each -- the man began to think he'd been had.
"I got screwed, and then I got screwed again," he said. "They didn't care. They got rid of me cheap."
Patterson, the archdiocese's lawyer, has vociferously denied those charges, filing a counterclaim against the couple and demanding that their entire cash settlement be returned -- plus attorney's fees. This is the second time Seattle has hit back with its own legal action against an alleged victim.
"We believe the claim is totally inaccurate and without merit," he said.
Dye maintains that she clearly announced her legal background in this instance -- in fact, contrary to her standard practice, she said she volunteered the information. The counseling cutoff had been negotiated beforehand, she added, with the archdiocese increasing its original offer by $25,000 specifically to cover those costs.
But typically, Dye acknowledged, she does not discuss her law degree at a first meeting.
"It's not very pastoral," she said. "It has all kinds of implications."
The church would not provide figures for the number of people who have settled their claims without lawyers. But several local attorneys suspect that Seattle dispatched dozens of cases this way -- under the radar and relatively cheap -- years before sexual abuse by priests became front-page news, and Dye confirms that she was able to resolve the vast majority of early cases without litigation.
But a 48-year-old man living in Wyoming, who described being raped by a priest at St. Ann's School in Tacoma, said she made his choices painfully clear.
"Jessie Dye said she couldn't work with me as long as I had an attorney," he said. "She said there hadn't been any other complaints against this priest so she could only offer me $48,000 and she could only work out a settlement with me if I didn't have a lawyer. In the end, I took the $48,000."
To Dye, Seattle's out-of-court track record -- no case here has ever gone to trial -- is evidence of the success of her program, which she defends as faster, less intrusive and ultimately more harmonious than full-blown litigation. To date, the archdiocese has settled with 106 people for a total of $13.7 million, including therapy and pastoral care. More than half of that amount, $8.6 million, went to 16 claimants who hired a private lawyer.
From her office at the Chancery, Dye personally responds to every phone call, meeting accusers wherever they choose -- at home, a shopping mall coffee shop, even once in a quiet corner of the Portland airport. The job has made her a lightning rod for the rage of hundreds of people. But Dye, a yoga devotee and dog lover, strives for equanimity.
"I often feel like a medic in a war zone and my goal is to get the bodies off the battlefield," she said. "I'm not on any side. I just want to get the people out of the danger zone and to the care they need."
Because she is paid by the church, some insist it is impossible for Dye to remain a truly impartial mediator. But she maintains that her personal circumstances would never permit turning a blind eye to victims.
"I'm a mother, first and foremost, and I made a decision early on that I would never work for a system that was covering up child abuse," she said. "I would quit. And I'm still here."
For these reasons, victims' complaints about her legal training leave Dye befuddled.
"It's just not important to me," she said. "Mahatma Gandhi was a lawyer, and we don't really associate him with that profession."
Only a few other dioceses -- Sacramento, Brooklyn and, briefly, Camden, N.J. -- have put lawyers in charge of listening to victims' stories, and all have come under fire. After two lawsuits charging fraud, Nancy Milton, the pastoral-care coordinator in Sacramento, said she made it a point to tell each caller about her law degree -- even though her license is inactive.
Dye keeps hers current. Victims' advocates wonder why. To them, it seems that a system that encourages reporting abuse on a confidential phone line, spending hours in consultation with Dye and submitting to additional questions from a former police detective is motivated more by liability concerns than compassion for suffering.
"The Archdiocese of Seattle uses the hot line to identify all victims who might sue and lure them in, to get as much information as possible so they can then prep their own team of lawyers," said John Shuster, a Port Orchard priest who left active ministry to get married and believes the church is rife with corruption.
Moreover, some abuse survivors said they were unaware that their stories would be immediately available to the church's legal team, which reviews each allegation and suggests a settlement amount based on a six-tiered point system -- level one for touching outside the clothes, level six for anal rape, with various gradations based on a child's age at the time.
Dr. Michael Bland, who convenes annual meetings of outreach coordinators, said Dye's program had influenced Chicago's, which is one of the largest archdioceses in the country. But there are no lawyers taking victims' calls there, he said, adding that Dye's tendency not to immediately reveal her legal background posed potential problems.
"While I can respect that Jessie may not consider it important to tell them she's a lawyer, I think it's important for victims to have the option of deciding for themselves," he said. "You're trying to establish trust, and it's important not to withhold valuable information."
For Bland, a psychologist and former priest, the issue is central to healing. But to legal ethicists, it's a matter of right and wrong. To their mind, the Seattle diocese is treading a very fine line.
"If a caller believes that Dye's there to help him, she has to make it clear that her responsibility is to her client, which might encompass helping him -- that's not excluded -- but it's somewhat disingenuous to suggest, 'We're going to reach out and help you because we're sorry about what might have happened,' while collecting information through someone trained to elicit it that, unbeknownst to the caller, could assist the diocese in defending a lawsuit later on," said Stephen Gillers, a professor of legal ethics at the New York University School of Law. "It smacks of duplicity -- intended or not."
A native of St. Louis, Dye came to Seattle fresh out of law school in 1976. Her first job was investigating race and sex discrimination claims for the Seattle Human Rights Commission. In 1985, the Archdiocese of Seattle hired her to resolve internal employment disputes.
During the same year, Raymond Hunthausen, then the Seattle archbishop, first heard of a blistering national report that detailed the potential liabilities surrounding Catholic priests having sex with children. The church was "facing extremely serious financial consequence as well as significant injury to its image," it said. Criminal considerations were such that "time is of the essence."
Hunthausen returned to Seattle, directed his vicars to review each priest in the archdiocese and forwarded a pile of worrisome personnel folders to the state attorney general. McGreal, who later confessed to molesting hundreds of children, was quietly sent to a New Mexico treatment center -- though he returned to the Seattle diocese and was subsequently accused of further abuse. Meanwhile, Hunthausen convened a panel of therapists to evaluate other priests, and by 1988 Dye's internal-mediation role had been recast. She was now the nation's first church official charged with talking to laypeople about sexual abuse.
Beyond legal wrangling, victims of abuse say they are equally troubled by the church's less observable tactics -- requiring that psychologists report on their progress in therapy; or asking claimants, many of whom have long histories of substance abuse, to sign agreements when their judgment is noticeably impaired by drugs or alcohol.
Louis DiDomenici, a longtime alcoholic and drug user, made sexual-abuse charges against the Rev. Barry Ashwell of Oak Harbor that were convincing enough for the archdiocese to write DiDomenici a check in 1996 and pay for ongoing therapy. Dye also promised that Ashwell would be defrocked and immediately removed from potential contact with children, DiDomenici said. But neither of these things happened. The priest remained in active ministry until 2002.
"The whole reason I took this deal was that they assured me he'd be out of the priesthood," he railed.
Currently in the King County Jail on charges that he burglarized his mother's home, DiDomenici would not reveal the final settlement amount, but his mother believes it was about $25,000 and she decried the church for handing a check to a known substance abuser.
"I told Jessie Dye, 'How dare you do something like that, you know he's an addict,' " she said. "They just pay them to go away, and all it does is keep them in the drug trap instead of getting them any real help."
In the end, victims and church officials agree, the fight is about something far less tangible than money. No amount can erase the terrified confusion of a 12-year-old boy, groped by a man he'd been taught to revere practically from birth, they say. No amount can right the sense of powerlessness grown men and women say they still feel when confronting a vast bureaucracy of lawyers committed to defending the institution.
For Jeff Alfieri, who committed suicide in the parking lot of Holy Family Church, where he said he'd been raped as a child, the effort to force reparation proved to be too much. The Seattle Archdiocese, which was monitoring his therapy sessions, had offered a settlement, but the amount outraged Alfieri. In late 2002, five months after calling the victims hot line, he filed a lawsuit.
The Alfieris were church insiders. Jeff's mother sang in her church choir. His father was friendly with the archbishop's personal lawyer. Both had been educated in Catholic schools, and they reared their children to share the same loyal obedience. So when Jeff, a broad-shouldered business agent for Local 117, stood on their backyard patio and told them he'd been repeatedly molested by the Rev. Gerald Moffat, his parents were dumbstruck. Sue Alfieri remembers stumbling toward her son, arms outstretched, but he warned her off.
"Don't touch me," he said. "I can't be touched."
Eight months later, he was dead at 43.
The archdiocese pulled out all the stops for Alfieri's funeral, holding it at St. James Cathedral downtown with the archbishop presiding. Nonetheless, in April, the Alfieris joined their dead son's lawsuit.
The reason, they said, goes to the issue of accountability and intent. Was all the pomp and ceremony only that, Ralph Alfieri wonders, a show designed to soften the edges of a particularly ugly episode? The archbishop had never met his son, after all, and other victims of priest abuse never received such grand treatment.
"I can't help asking, was the archbishop there as an executive of a big corporation or out of an act of love?" he said. "I'm not making charges. I'm not making allegations. I simply have a question."
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