|Priest Sex-Assault Victim Asks Highest Court to Hear Her Case
By Tracy Breton
October 5, 2008
In 1982, Mary Ryan was raped by a Roman Catholic priest in the bedroom of her Providence apartment. The priest, the now-deceased Monsignor Louis Ward Dunn, was convicted by a judge. It was the first rape conviction of a priest in Rhode Island.
Like many victims who were sexually abused by priests over the last several decades, Ryan went on to sue the Diocese of Providence and its hierarchy, claiming that they should be held responsible for what had happened to them. The suits alleged that over a period of decades, diocesan leaders had received many reports of sexual misconduct by priests assigned to its parishes but had swept them under the rug. Instead of expelling the priests from their ranks, the lawsuits claimed, diocesan leaders repeatedly transferred them from church to church where they continued their sexual predation.
But unlike the other victims who filed such lawsuits, Mary Ryan refused to accept a mediated settlement. She turned down $400,000 that the diocese was prepared to give her to compensate her for her injuries.
Now, in what may be the final leg of her long battle with the Rhode Island judiciary, the 47-year-old Burrillville mother of four is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to declare that she has a right to a jury trial on the merits of her claims. Joining her as a petitioner is her husband of 25 years, Thomas Ryan, a fire-alarm installer who has stood by her side since the day, 14 years ago, that she revealed to him that the priest who had given her away at their wedding – a man whom she considered a surrogate father, who had baptized her first child – had sexually assaulted her.
MARY RYAN’S quest for justice has never been about money, she says. It’s about holding the diocese publicly accountable for what she calls “a cover-up” and a long campaign by its leaders to smear her reputation. She wants to be able to present her case to a jury. If she goes to trial, she reasons, she will be able to force the diocese to open up thousands of pages of confidential records that the diocesan leaders have fought for years to keep secret. The records, now under court seal, will be the vehicle, she says, that will help prove her case.
Ryan’s legal battle has been a lonely, uphill fight. In 2002, she was the only one of 38 victims of sexual abuse who would not participate in a $13.5-million settlement from the Diocese of Providence that was mediated through binding arbitration. When she balked, her lawyer decided he didn’t want to represent her anymore. For the past six years, she has gone it alone, incurring thousands of dollars in costs – much of it donated by friends – to continue her court battle on her own. She says she has spent more than $6,000 on transcripts alone.
So far it has been for naught.
In 2003, Superior Court Judge Robert D. Krause – the judge who presided over the dozens of cases that settled with the diocese – dismissed Ryan’s lawsuit after she refused to join with the others who took the money, saying she had waited too long to sue after being raped by Louis Dunn. This February, the state Supreme Court rejected her appeal, agreeing with Krause. The court said Ryan and her husband had just three years to sue after the rape, but had waited 13 years to do so.
Ryan asserts that the state Supreme Court erred in its ruling and that it completely missed the point she was trying to make when it ruled on the statute of limitations issue.
“Dunn and his criminal conduct was not before the court,” she said in a recent interview. “That’s already been established. The criminal case was done. The issue here is that these men [diocesan leaders] knew Louis Dunn and other priests were criminals yet they put them in positions of power” where they could continue preying on young parishioners “of their sexual preference.”
“Unbeknownst to me, Dunn had been reported to the diocese long before what he did to me, while stuff was happening to me.” But no one, she says, did anything to stop him.
In Mary Ryan’s mind, there is “no statute of limitations of a cover-up that continues to this day.” As recently as this January, the church was in court arguing against having to produce records to show what it knew about sexually abusive priests over the years. In a decision involving three lawsuits brought by men who say they were molested years ago by three different Rhode Island priests, Superior Court Judge Netti C. Vogel ordered the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence to provide much more information regarding allegations against dozens of priests going back nearly four decades.
In response to the court order, the church produced files on 83 priests – including Father Dunn – who have been accused over the years of sexual misconduct. But since those lawsuits were settled without a trial, almost everything produced by the diocese remains under seal.
Representing herself, Ryan is now asking the nation’s highest court to review the lower court’s decision, overturn it and reinstate her lawsuit. She is asking to be heard “in forma pauperis” – which would allow her to argue her case as an indigent petitioner, someone who has no ability to pay.
She asserts in her newly filed brief that not only did the Rhode Island Supreme Court err in interpreting the statute of limitations but that her constitutional rights were violated. She alleges that the chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, Frank J. Williams, should have disqualified himself from participating in her case – alleging that his “strong public ties” to diocesan leaders made him a less than neutral participant. She also asserts that Krause, the trial judge who threw out her lawsuit, had “an agenda” in pushing the settlement of the cases and that he, too, should have recused himself from hearing her case once she made it clear she did not want to settle.
Thomas R. Bender, a lawyer representing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, believes Ryan’s petition is so meritless that he has waived his right to file a reply to her filing. In a recent interview, he called Ryan’s petition mostly “a rehash” of arguments over state law that she has previously made – without success – for the past several years.
“She hasn’t raised any federal constitutional issues that I think the court would be interested in,” said Bender.
But Ryan contends that it would be in the public interest for the U.S. Supreme Court to take up her case because “across the nation, there are numerous courts issuing contradictory rulings” regarding statutes of limitation in clergy sexual abuse cases “and many victims have been denied their day in court.”
She says that local diocesan leaders “have acknowledged – in their own ‘audit report’ – that more than 10,000 children across the nation are alleged to have been sexually abused by more than 4,500 priests” yet have “lobbied across the country to preserve their privilege … and financial assets at the expense of the nation’s children. They have fought hard against the elimination or extension of statutes of limitations as a matter of public policy….” Ryan says she has filed 1,400 pages of exhibits to bolster her claim –– along with a stream of quotes from Chief Justice Williams from published interviews he has given to reporters over the years.
One of the things she cites in her brief is an excerpt from an interview that Williams gave to M. Charles Bakst, the now-retired political columnist for The Providence Journal, in September 2003. “Writing about certain church and State issues, Mr. Bakst discussed Judge Williams’ decision to use the prestige of his public office to urge R.I. State judges to take part in the defendants’ ‘Red Mass’ on Supreme Court stationery.… Judge Williams requested the judges to notify a designated court employee to confirm their attendance.”
She also includes statements Williams made to The Providence Visitor, the diocesan newspaper, on Jan. 5, 2004. “Without faith, you’re dead…,” he told the reporter. “It’s very easy going from being a Catholic to being a judge. We follow the same principles…. We were not founded as an atheist society.… Peaceful mediation has become my mantra…. That peace coming from Christ.”
Ryan also noted that in an interview with the Associated Press on Sept. 8, 2004, Chief Justice Williams said he had urged lawyers in the clergy abuse cases to mediate. “You don’t need a forum such as the court to go through every gory detail…. I don’t think we need that in our culture,” Ryan quotes Williams as saying.
In her appellate brief, Ryan also tells the court that after her lawyer decided to pull out of her case, he contacted her therapist. The lawyer, she said, wanted her therapist to meet with him and the Ryans to “attempt to convince them” to participate in the multi-million-dollar settlement that the other sexual assault victims had agreed to take from the diocese. The therapist refused to attend the meeting, Ryan says.
THE NATION’S highest court is taking up Ryan’s petition in a conference on Friday to decide whether to take the case.
The odds are slim that the court will accept it. In 2006 – the latest year for which statistical records are available – there were 8,857 cases that the court was asked to review. It chose to hear just 78 of those cases. Historically, of the cases that are accepted for review, less than 1 percent are from indigent petitioners.
Once a petition is filed, it is first read by the justices’ law clerks. The justices themselves often go no further in deciding whether to accept a case than reading a memo from a law clerk pool. Legal experts say that the best barometer for weighing whether the Supreme Court will take a case is whether there is a federal issue of national importance. It takes four justices – out of the nine on the court – to vote to place a case on the court’s calendar for briefing and argument.
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