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  Sex Abuse Trial Slated for Janssen

By Todd Ruger
Quad-City Times [Iowa]
May 1, 2005

When James Wells filed a lawsuit in 2003 claiming he was sexually abused decades ago by a priest from the Catholic Diocese of Davenport, he was the first to attach his name to allegations against James Janssen during an emerging scandal that year.
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Since then, Janssen has been removed from the priesthood by the Vatican, faced similar lawsuits filed by seven other men and been identified by the diocese as a major perpetrator in 37 similar claims it agreed to settle for $9 million.
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But a trial scheduled to start Monday in Scott County District Court on the merits of the lawsuit filed by Wells — Janssen's nephew and namesake — will be the first time testimony and evidence related to the allegations are presented in public.
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All of the legal questions central to the lawsuit are on the table for a jury to decide: Did the sexual abuse happen? Why did Wells wait so long — more than four decades — to file a lawsuit? Did he wait too long to be eligible to receive damages or does he qualify for an exemption to the statute of limitations?
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Those questions prompted voluminous pretrial legal filings over the past 20 months, and the jury's decision on them likely will act as a legal bellwether for the remaining lawsuits filed against Janssen and other priests in the Davenport Diocese.
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Last-minute motions have clouded the way the lawsuit will proceed through trial, ranging from which witnesses will be allowed to testify to picking jury members for a trial with subject matter as sensitive as religious beliefs and child sexual abuse.
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Last-minute settlement attempts failed Friday afternoon, plaintiff's attorney Craig Levien said, setting the stage for a trial to begin Monday morning.
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"The evidence will be overwhelming," Levien said during an April 21 pretrial hearing. "The truth has been continually denied under oath by Janssen."
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Janssen's attorney, Edward Wehr, has consistently declined comment on the lawsuit when contacted by the QUAD-CITY TIMES.
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It will be the first civil trial of a priest or ex-priest on allegations of sexual abuse in Iowa and what a victims' advocacy group calls "one of the most well-documented cases of a clearly dangerous repeat offender."
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"It gives them an opportunity to get the truth out in open court about his crimes and the cover-up of those crimes," said David Clohessy, the executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "The victims in this case are clearly motivated to protect other kids and expose the truth."
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What witnesses, which jurors?
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Wells, of Davenport, hopes to call to the witness stand seven men who say they were sexually abused by Janssen years ago, a mental health expert and two priests and a vicar general of the diocese, court records show.
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However, the judge hearing the case, District Judge C.H. Pelton, has told Levien he will not allow some of those witnesses to testify because they have to have information "relevant in time and space" to Wells' allegations.
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Janssen has listed as potential witnesses Davenport Diocese Bishop William Franklin, the Rev. Francis Bass — who also faces sexual abuse lawsuits — and three men who say they lived or traveled with Janssen but did not "ever see or hear from anyone, young or old, that the defendant abused them."
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Also, Janssen has asked the judge to disallow testimony on conduct between himself and people other than Wells that would be considered sexual acts, abuse, other crimes or wrongdoing.
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Whether Wells will be able to call all of his witnesses or be limited by court rules that disallow testimony only about the character of the other party has yet to be ruled on by Pelton.
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The judge also has not decided how the jury will be selected, but about 40 potential jurors — twice as many as usual — will be called to help fill the eight-person panel.
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Wells and Janssen have submitted questions for a survey to be taken by the potential jurors before the start of the selection process.
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A draft of that questionnaire included 57 questions, some of which Pelton objected to, such as whether the potential juror has ever received counseling, been sexually abused or approached sexually or propositioned as a child.
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"I don't think they have to tell you," Pelton said during a hearing April 21. "I think some of these questions violate their privacy."
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Janssen also has asked that each juror be questioned privately in the judge's chambers, a tactic that Wells has said would deny his right to a public trial and would take too long.
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"The whole thing would be tainted if we don't sequester the jury" during selection, Wehr said at the hearing.
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Physical evidence that Wells plans to present includes his medical and mental health records, as well as portions of Janssen's personnel file and the diocese's "secret archives," according to court documents.
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Wells' allegations
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According to court records, Wells' testimony will state that it was after Thanksgiving dinner in 1953 when Janssen took a nap with his 5-year-old nephew, molesting him and telling the youngster it was "our secret."
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That was the beginning of nine years of abuse, Wells has said.
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Also, Janssen would take Wells and a group of students swimming at the Lend-A-Hand pool in Davenport, where he would sexually abuse them, the lawsuit claims.
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While Janssen was assigned as a priest in Fort Madison, Iowa, he and another priest would have card parties with Wells and other young boys during which the priests and boys would be unclothed, according to the lawsuit.
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Wells' lawsuit seeks "an amount in excess of the jurisdictional amount that is fair and reasonable to compensate him for the damages resulting from the years of sexual abuse inflicted upon him and for punitive damages in an amount sufficient to deter others."
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Janssen's defense
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Janssen, who was an active priest in the diocese from 1948 to 1990, has denied Wells' allegations, according to court records.
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Wehr has said in court that he plans to introduce a letter Wells sent to Janssen in February 1987, asking the then-priest to pay for the treatment of his diagnosis of depression due to the sexual abuse.
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A response letter sent that month by Wehr, who represented Janssen at the time, threatened to sue Wells for damage to Janssen's reputation, court records show.
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Wehr has argued in court documents that the original letter shows Wells knew about the connection between any alleged abuse and any diagnosed mental illnesses at that time and should have brought any claims years ago.

 
 

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