|Diocese Won't Pay into Suit Settlement
Case Alleged Abuse by Ex-Area Priest
By Jay Tokasz
The Buffalo News
January 27, 2008
[See also the list of accused extern and order priests released by the San Diego diocese.]
The Catholic Diocese of Buffalo won't contribute toward the settlement of a sex abuse lawsuit in California that identified 38 members of the clergy, including a deceased priest who had retired from the Buffalo Diocese.
The lawsuit was part of a global settlement reached late last year between the San Diego Diocese and 144 people who said they had been abused.
The San Diego Diocese, which had filed for bankruptcy earlier last year, agreed to pay $198 million as part of Chapter 11 reorganization proceedings.
Both the Buffalo and San Diego dioceses were named as defendants in a case brought by Alex Horning, who claims he was abused by the Rev. James H. Cotter in the late 1980s.
Several of Cotter's friends, though, say they doubt Cotter was involved in any misconduct and note that no accusations against him surfaced during his lifetime.
Diocesan officials in San Diego listed Cotter as one of 38 priests against whom "credible allegations" had been made — even though Cotter died in 1991 and the allegations arose years after his death.
An initial payment already has been delivered to Horning. Horning's lawyer would not disclose the amount, but the average award came to $1.375 million per victim — making the settlement one of the most expensive in a nationwide clergy abuse scandal that has cost U.S. dioceses more than $2 billion.
The San Diego Diocese, which is selling properties and raising funds to pay off the settlements, apparently has tried to recoup $725,868 from the Buffalo Diocese because the case involved Cotter. Most of that, $650,000, would come from Catholic Mutual, the self-insurance fund of the Catholic Church in North America.
Diocesan officials in San Diego revealed those amounts in recent presentations to parishioners explaining the settlements.
Rodrigo Valdivia, chancellor for the San Diego Diocese, declined to comment on whether the Buffalo Diocese was assisting in the payment to Horning, other than to say in an e-mail that the matter was "not completely resolved yet."
But Buffalo Diocese officials said they received no sexual abuse complaints against Cotter during his lifetime and were not responsible for any misconduct alleged in San Diego.
"Because the Diocese of Buffalo did nothing wrong, we did not pay anything toward the settlement," said Kevin A. Keenan, a spokesman.
The Buffalo Diocese has been released from any financial obligation in the San Diego settlement, said Terrence M. Connors, an attorney for the diocese.
Friends of Cotter, meanwhile, maintain that the San Diego Diocese had too many cases to examine and did little to investigate Horning's claims.
"I truly believe that what it comes down to is Father Cotter is gone and there's nobody that can actually stand up and say, 'Look, he didn't do this,' " said Michael Jauch, a retired police officer whose family maintained a close friendship with the priest for many years.
The case involving Cotter was lumped with 143 others as part of a "global settlement" — in which, by agreement of plaintiffs and defendants, all or none of the cases gets resolved, regardless of the strength or weakness of a single case.
"We don't have enough clergy and people to investigate everything," said the Rev. Joe Carroll, a San Diego priest who serves as head of St. Vincent de Paul Village, a nonprofit human services agency.
Carroll, a close friend of Cotter, gave the homily at Cotter's funeral in Bemus Point. Cotter had a long affiliation with the Boy Scouts, and he assisted Carroll as the backup chaplain for a Scout troop in San Diego.
"I never would have not trusted him with people. He spent his entire life really working with kids," Carroll said. "I find it hard to believe. I find it very hard to accept it because there's no history."
"[With] other priests, there was a case history," he added.
But Joseph G. Dicks, Horning's lawyer, said the abuse of his client was very real and other people have come forward with similar stories.
"I've got at least two — and maybe one other — victims of Father Cotter who have told me their stories about his methods, his characteristics, in gory, gory detail," Dicks said. "The stories could have been written by the same exact person. They are precisely the same exact [method of operation], the same conduct, the same abuse. It's chilling.
"It's a cowardly statement to say people are making this stuff up," Dicks added.
The judge who determined the individual award amounts in the San Diego cases also wrote in his order that there was "little doubt as to the events that transpired" based on the "consistency of the patterns and practices of both the priests in question and the diocese."
Cotter's defenders noted that no complaints of sexual abuse were lodged against him while he was still alive.
"A pedophile doesn't start out at 70 years old," said Jauch, a former Buffalo resident who now lives in Texas.
And contrary to Dicks' contention that the Buffalo Diocese had sent Cotter to San Diego as part of an arranged early retirement, friends of the priest said Cotter had tried to retire earlier because of health problems.
Then-Bishop Edward D. Head asked Cotter to stay at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Bemus Point, Jauch said.
"He tried to retire two years before, and the diocese wouldn't let him. He had wanted to get out years before that because of health issues," Jauch said.
Cotter, ordained a priest of the Buffalo Diocese in 1950, moved to San Diego in 1978.
Horning said in court papers that he was molested over the course of four years while he met with Cotter for "counseling services."
The twice-monthly counseling sessions with Cotter began when Horning was a 7-year-old pupil at Nazareth Catholic Elementary School, according to court papers filed in 2003 in California Superior Court.
The Buffalo Diocese largely has avoided the huge lawsuits that have hit several large dioceses and archdioceses across the country, including Boston, Mass.; Los Angeles; Portland, Ore.; and Tucson, Ariz.
Diocesan officials have reported spending $1.16 million on settlements, legal fees and therapy for victims and offenders between 1950 and 2006 — a period when 53 clergy were accused of 108 incidents of sexual abuse.
The diocese has refused to provide details of its past settlements.
In 2002, a former altar boy revealed to The Buffalo News that the diocese had paid $150,000 to settle a sexual assault complaint stemming from allegations of abuse by a priest in the 1970s.
In 1996, a Michigan woman who had sued the Buffalo Diocese for $20 million, claiming it failed to protect her from a sexually abusive priest, settled the federal case for an undisclosed amount.
Two other lawsuits, one filed in 1993 for $2.9 million and another in 1994 for $2 million, also were settled outside of court.
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