|Church Close to Settling Abuse Case
By Danny Jacobs
August 6, 2008
Lawyers tell judge they are talking about $200K
Lawyers for a former Catholic priest and the Archdiocese of Baltimore say they are close to settling a sexual abuse case filed by the parents of a man who died of a drug overdose, allegedly as a result of the priest’s actions 17 years ago.
Harry and Cathy Cliffe’s son died in February 2005 at age 22. They filed a $2 million lawsuit against Steven P. Girard and the archdiocese last December, alleging Girard’s actions caused their son to suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome and led to his drug use.
Jeffrey J. Utermohle, representing the Cliffes, told Judge Vicki Ballou-Watts in Baltimore County Circuit Court that the parties were working on a $200,000 settlement, a statement confirmed by attorneys for Girard and the archdiocese.
Ballou-Watts agreed to postpone a scheduled motions hearing to give them more time.
The abuse allegedly began in 1991 when Girard was pastor at St. Clement Church in Lansdowne and oversaw the parochial school where Jerome Cliffe, then 8 years old, was in third grade, according to the complaint. (The school closed several years ago.) The alleged abuse took place in a confessional and a classroom, according to the complaint.
“To enforce Jerome’s silence, Girard threatened young Jerome that God would harm Jerome’s family if Jerome told about the sexual abuse,” according to the lawsuit.
Girard denied the allegations in a May response to the lawsuit.
The archdiocese, in its motion to dismiss the lawsuit, called Girard’s acts “unprovoked, highly unusual and outrageous behavior” but said they occurred without the church’s knowledge and fell beyond the scope of Girard’s employment with the church.
Despite its legal arguments, the archdiocese acknowledged the seriousness of the Cliffe’s allegations.
“Simply put, Girard’s alleged criminal conduct violates the very things held sacred by the church, is contrary to religious teaching and is not even remotely in the service of religion,” it stated.
Jerome Cliffe suffered “physical pain, humiliation and mental anguish” as a result of the abuse, the complaint says. He underwent “adverse personality changes” and began using drugs as a teenager, according to the lawsuit.
Utermohle, of the Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos P.C. in Baltimore, did not return a phone call seeking comment after Wednesday’s hearing. Neither did representatives of the archdiocese nor its lawyers from Gallagher Evelius & Jones LLP in Baltimore.
Arnold M. Zerwitz of Zerwitz & Zerwitz in Dundalk, who is representing Girard, declined to comment on the case.
Resigned two years earlier
Jerome Cliffe told Baltimore County police about the alleged abuse in April 2004. An April 4, 2004, press release from the archdiocese announced it was investigating allegations against Girard. The archdiocese later sent the Cliffes a letter of apology for Girard’s behavior and offered them counseling and a chance to meet with other victims of clergy abuse, according to court documents.
Girard was forced to resign from St. Clement in early 2002 and was not allowed to function as a priest after being charged with filing a false carjacking report in March 2002, according to the archdiocese. The report was an attempt to cover up a night he spent with a male prostitute, according to news reports at the time.
Girard pleaded not guilty in August 2002 in Baltimore County District Court and was placed on one year’s probation, according to court documents. He was also required to complete treatment at a Catholic psychiatric facility in Silver Spring as a condition of his probation.
Girard was granted retirement by then-Cardinal William H. Keeler on Sept. 1, 2003. The Cliffes’ lawsuit does not mention any other instances of abuse by Girard or indicate the archdiocese knew of any other cases.
In September 2002, the archdiocese released a list of clergy members who had been accused of child abuse up to that time. The list included two other priests who had served at St. Clement in Landsdowne, but not Girard.
No criminal charges of sexual abuse have been filed against Girard in Maryland, according to state court records.
According to the archdiocese, Girard was ordained in October 1975 and served at St. Clement from 1987 to 2002. Prior to that, he served at St. Matthew in Baltimore from 1973-1975; The John Carroll School in Bel Air from January 1975 until June 1975; Our Lady of Mount Carmel from 1975 to 1978; the Catholic Youth Organization’s Retreat House from 1978 to 1982; and St. Clare in Essex from 1982-1987.
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