|Fairbanks Judge Urges Lawyers to Close Church Abuse Cases
By Mary Beth Smetzer
January 22, 2009
FAIRBANKS — At a status hearing Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Niesje Steinkruger took up her managerial reins again, telling attorneys on both sides of the multiple, unsettled clerical child sex abuse cases to focus on the goal of clearing court dockets.
“Put these cases on the front burner and get them resolved,” she said at several points in the two-hour proceeding.
Steinkruger was assigned the task of managing the litigation of hundreds of abuse cases more than a year ago for the Alaska court system. Since then, a few new lawyers are involved, and bankruptcy proceedings slowed as claimants continue to come forward.
“The state has waited patiently for a year,” Steinkruger reminded lawyers, questioning them on where they were in bankruptcy proceedings, mediation deadlines, insurance claim progress and when they would settle.
“I am interested in these cases being resolved without lawyers collecting fees over a five-year period,” she said. “I am interested in the insurance money, if it’s going to be paid, to be paid to the claimants and not all to the lawyers, both for the benefit of the Catholic church and for the alleged victims.”
At several points in Wednesday’s proceedings, Steinkruger pointed out the human element on both sides.
“I want the insurance companies to know that this is not just another case file,” she said.
Steinkruger said she was willing to set a hearing in Bethel or Nome for the case representatives involved to visit some of the communities where the alleged sex abuse took place. She also offered her help in finding suitable mediators as well as admonishing lawyers to get moving and not slow down the process by introducing motions at a late date.
“I will not have a jury brought into Bethel from the villages, sitting around as we hash things out,” she said.
A month after Steinkruger took the job in October 2007, the Society of Jesus, Oregon Province, settled with 113 Alaska Native child sex abuse claimants for $50 million. On March 1, 2008, the Fairbanks Catholic Diocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in federal court.
More than a half dozen lawyers representing claimants and defendants in the multitude of lawsuits — which have more than doubled in the last year — were hooked into the courtroom via teleconference. To date, close to 300 claims are involved in diocese bankruptcy proceedings.
A large number of the same claimants also are filing civil suits against the Society of Jesus.
One of the cases discussed Wednesday was filed in Bethel in August, and names the Rev. Brad Reynolds for the first time as a defendant. Reynolds is a well-known photographer and author of the Father Townsend mystery book series.
The complaint is the first case filed by alleged victims where the statute of limitations does not apply.
The two John Does listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit allege the abuse that took place in Toksook Bay when they were minors, and Reynolds was in residence in the village.
According to their attorney, Jim Valcarce of Bethel, an amended, more detailed complaint will be filed soon, expanding on the current allegations that the abuse took place numerous times in Toksook Bay and Reynolds’ quarters and “included but was not limited to masturbation and touching of penis.”
Reynolds was removed from the ministry, according to the Jesuit personnel policies, after the lawsuit was filed in August, and has been living in a Jesuit community under 24-hour supervision since.
A statement, issued Wednesday by the Rev. Patrick Lee, S.J., the Oregon Province provincial, stated that the province takes the allegations of misconduct against Reynolds seriously and will continue to investigate them to the fullest extent.
In a later paragraph, Lee stated that the province is contesting the allegations made against Reynolds, and out of respect for the court will offer no further information or comment on the case until it is concluded.
“We pray that the truth will be revealed and that all who have been hurt by these allegations will receive the forgiveness, healing and reconciliation that they seek and deserve,” concluded the statement.
Lee replaces the former provincial the Rev. John D. Whitney, whose six-year office expired July 31.
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