Did Catholic Church Follow Procedures for Reporting Sex-abuse Claim against Mobile Priest?
By Brendan Kirby
February 19, 2015
The Archdiocese of Mobile investigated and cleared a priest in late 2013 after receiving an allegation that he had sex with a teenager nearly a decade earlier, but it is unclear whether church leaders reported it to authorities.
The allegation has surfaced as part of a lawsuit accusing the school overseen by the priest, the Rev. Johnny Savoie, of failing to prevent severe bullying. It is one of four bullying lawsuits pending against St. Pius X School and its administrators, including Savoie.
The allegation of an improper relationship is not directly related to the bullying case, but lawyers for the plaintiff have gone to court to force the priest to provide more details an internal investigation conducted by the church.
Savoie, who is pastor of St. Pius X Catholic Church in Mobile and supervises the principal of its school, acknowledged the allegation to his congregation in February of last year.
Read Savoie's testimony here.
Baldwin County District Attorney Hallie Dixon said Thursday afternoon that her office received a letter from the Archdiocese of Mobile in December 2013 reporting details of an alleged sexual relationship nearly a decade earlier between Savoie and a teenager who worked part time at St. Lawrence Catholic Church. Church authorities followed up with additional information about the allegation on Jan. 4 of last year, Dixon said.
The district attorney said that the relationship, according to the report, supposedly began when the teenager was 16 and lasted until he was 18. She said that since 16 is the age of consent in Alabama, that would mean would have been no criminal child-sex crime, even if true.
Dixon said that other offenses that might possibly apply, such as harassment, would have occurred beyond the statute of limitations.
"Based on what was reported to us, there was in a relationship between an individual that was not under age at the time that it occurred," she said. "There was no crime that would apply for us to investigate."
For his part, Savoie has maintained that the allegation was untrue.
"I wish to share a very serious matter with you," he told parishioners, according to a statement offered by the defense in the bullying case. "An accusation has been made against me that approximately nine years ago I was involved in an inappropriate sexual conduct with a 16-year-old. The accusation was reported to the Archdiocese and then communicated to me. I adamantly deny the accusation.
"The Archdiocese reported the accusation to the District Attorney in accord with archdiocesan policy."
Savoie added that he requested a lie detector test and that he passed it.
"The Archdiocese has determined that there is no evidence to support the accusation," he told the congregation, according to the court filing. "Therefore, I remain serving as pastor of St. Pius X Parish. I ask for your prayers to me and all concerned."
A Mobile County District Attorney's Office prosecutor who handles child sexual abuse cases said no such an allegation had been reported to her office.
A spokesman for the Alabama Department of Human Resources, which investigates child sexual abuse cases, said he could not comment because of confidentiality laws.
Savoie could not be reached for comment. Archbishop Thomas Rodi, in an emailed response to questions from AL.com, wrote that the "allegation was made more than a year ago. At that time it was reported by the Archdiocese of Mobile to civil authorities in accord with our child protection policy."
In sworn testimony Savoie gave in September, he denied the allegation and testified that he never had faced a similar accusation.
Savoie testified that no one from the police or the district attorney's office questioned him and that he did not know if the Department of Human Resources ever investigated.
Attorneys for the defense have argued in court filings that the plaintiffs are attempting to "harass and embarrass" Savoie over an incident that is irrelevant to the lawsuit.
The defense filing indicates that it seeks to withhold only information pertaining to the internal investigation and not prevent questions about the incident, itself.
"Nevertheless, Plaintiffs' counsel simply elected not to ask a great deal of questions in this vein, opting instead to continually prove areas directed pertaining to the aforementioned matters which they knew Defendants deemed objectionable," the filing states.
Answers sought regarding probe
Attorneys for the plaintiff in the civil case, a former student who alleges that she was bullied between the ages of 11 and 14 from 2010 to 2012, have tried to pry more detailed answers out of Savoie and school officials. They have pursued the matter aggressively, at one point even asking for a court order instructing Savoie to surrender his passport and cancel a planned trip to Italy.
That prompted a sharp response from defense lawyers in the bullying case.
"This is a civil lawsuit, and Father Savoie is not a fugitive, criminal defendant, or otherwise subject to any criminal investigation," the defense filing states. "Plaintiffs have cited absolutely no legal authority for this request, despite its gravity."
Attorneys for the school have instructed the priest not answer some questions and have objected to the plaintiff's lawyers' attempts to subpoena documents from the private investigator hired by the church.
Defense lawyers have instructed Savoie not to answer questions pertaining to the content of interviews conducted by the private investigator, Max Hansen, and inquiries made of other people in connection with that investigation. The lawyers argued attorney-client privilege protects the information, because Hansen was working under the direction of the law firm, and by what is known as attorney "work product."
Mobile County Circuit Judge Sarah Stewart, who is presiding over the bullying case, cast doubt on the attorney-client claim at a hearing earlier this month but seemed more open to a contention that the information is protected as the attorneys' work product.
Either way, she told lawyers for St. Puis they would need to provide her with sworn affidavits from Rodi and the Archdiocese's director of child laying out what exactly they directed the lawyers to do regarding the allegation against Savoie. The deadline for submitting those is Friday.
The defense argument is that communications between Hansen, Savoie and others should be treated the same as conversations between a lawyer and his client because the investigator was working as an extension of the law firm.
Attorneys for the plaintiff argue that the law firm, Vickers, Riis, Murray & Curran, has a conflict of interest because it puts the lawyers in the position of representing both Savoie and the Archdiocese in separate proceedings even though their interests differ. What's more, the plaintiffs argue, privilege does not apply to the private investigator or his polygraph examiner.
"In effect, the Defendants are attempting to use the attorney client privilege as both a shield and sword," the lawyers write in a court filing.
St. Pius lawyers also are trying to prevent efforts by lawyers for the plaintiff to subpoena documents from the district attorney's offices in Mobile and Baldwin counties, as well as the Department of Human Resources.
David Kennedy and Christine Hernandez, attorneys for the plaintiff, wrote in a court filing that the old allegation against Savoie - and how the church handled it - is relevant because he is the top administrator over the parish school where the alleged bullying occurred.
"The fact at issue is whether or not Savoie engaged in a two year sexual relationship with a teenage boy, whether others within the Archdiocese were aware of such and when, and whether or not it was reported to the proper authorities," the lawyers wrote. "The issue is whether the actions or inaction of Johnny Savoie, priest and senior administrator of St. Pius X school responsible for a school full of elementary and middle school children, amounted to the imposition of a danger to the students under his supervision and was this a proximate cause of the injuries suffered by the Plaintiff in this case."
Mobile County Assistant District Attorney Nicki Patterson, who oversees the prosecution of child sex offenders, said her office never received notification from the Archdiocese of Mobile about the allegation against Savoie. She said she has worked with an administrator form the Archdiocese on another matter, but it did not result in charges.
"He was very cooperative," she said. "It did not come to us through the church. But it wouldn't have."
Under state law, members of the clergy are among the professions required to report allegations of sexual abuse to law enforcement authorities. The statute requires that when a child is "known or suspected to be a victim of child abuse or neglect," people covered by the law "shall be required to report, or cause a report to be made of the same, orally, either by telephone or direct communication immediately, followed by a written report, to a duly constituted authority."
Patterson said it would be improper to conduct an internal investigation to determine the veracity of a sexual-abuse allegations before reporting it to law enforcement authorities.
"They should report it as soon as they get an allegation," she said.
Barry Spear, a spokesman for the Department of Human Resources, agreed.
"They should report, and the word is 'suspected' abuse or neglect," he said. "They should report it as soon as they become aware."