|Catholic Order to Settle Priest Sex Abuse Lawsuit
By Todd Ruger
July 15, 2011
A Catholic religious order has agreed to pay a Nokomis man $1.75 million to settle a lawsuit that accused a priest of repeatedly sexually abusing his son, an attorney said.
The lawsuit claims the Order of the Carmelites was aware of Father William Wert's past conviction for touching a 14-year-old boy on the inner thigh, but still allowed him to move to the Carmelites' home in Venice while on a leave of absence.
Wert faces criminal charges he had a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old Nokomis boy from September to January, including at the order's home where Wert lived and in a motel room.
Venice attorney Geoffrey Morris, who represented the father of the boy in the civil lawsuit, said the Carmelites agreed to the settlement during mediations in Sarasota County this week.
Morris said that many victims of priestly sexual abuse have a difficult time with interpersonal relationships later in life, and there is a higher rate of alcohol abuse and potential for suicide and other psychological problems. The boy is now 15 and still attending school.
"The psychologists who are treating (the boy) say he's going to need counseling for many, many years," Morris said. "It's done irreparable damage."
The $1.75 million amount is higher than many victims received when Catholic dioceses across the country settled accusations of priest abuse that came to light in the early 2000s, according to statistics kept at the website bishop-accountability.org.
This lawsuit was somewhat unusual, however, because there is an entire 2007 criminal case with accusations of sexual conduct by Wert that put the religious order on notice of his dangerous behavior, the boy's attorney said.
In that incident, a 14-year-old boy at a transit station in Washington complained to police that Wert had followed him, asked for his name and touched his thigh after suggesting they "hide" somewhere. Originally charged with a misdemeanor sex offense, Wert was convicted of simple assault after a two-day trial; he was sentenced to 15 days in jail and five years of probation. An appeals court upheld his conviction.
The Carmelites had Wert on probation, yet they had him live with other Carmelites in a house they owned, and gave Wert access to a new Ford Mustang and the Internet, the boy's attorneys said.
The lawsuit states that the Order of the Carmelites had a duty to supervise Wert and prevent him from engaging in sexual abuse on its property, which is close to the Epiphany Cathedral and School in Venice. The Carmelites are not directly associated with the Catholic Diocese of Venice.
The father of the Nokomis boy, listed in the lawsuit only as John Doe Sr. to protect his son's identity, first contacted authorities when he found what have been described as inappropriate messages on his son's cellphone.
Wert remains in jail on $190,000 bail and his trial is scheduled for October. The Carmelites, based in Illinois, did not immediately return a call for comment.
Father John Welch, a prior who oversees Wert and 190 Carmelites priests in the continental United States and South America, previously told the Herald-Tribune that he took steps to keep Wert away from children.
Welch said he sent Wert to the church-owned retirement home in Venice because it had "no proximity" to a school, mission or any other Carmelite-run ministry.
Welch did not notify the Catholic Diocese of Venice about Wert's presence or about his conviction. Welch said that was not necessary because Wert was not authorized to perform ministry for the diocese.
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