Local diocese closes painful chapter in sex abuse case
Savannah Morning News
July 10, 2016
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah last week closed a painful and shameful chapter from its past when it announced it would pay $4.5 million to resolve a suit alleging child sexual abuse by a since-defrocked priest, Wayland Y. Brown. This was the second time the diocese agreed to settle a case involving Brown. The earlier one, resolved in 2009, settled for $4.24 million.
In the newer settlement, the plaintiff said he was a minor when Brown, whom he met at Savannah’s St. James Catholic Church and school, repeatedly molested him some 30 years ago. The sum, among the largest of settlements in individual cases of priest sex abuse, was reached after mediation. Its size indicates a willingness to end the litigation. It could also reflect vulnerability by the diocese which, under previous leadership, was accused of ordaining Brown despite reports of possible sexual abuse, of placing him where he had access to children and of not acting sooner on allegations against him.
Then-Bishop Raymond Lessard, who died earlier this year at his home in Boynton Beach, Fla., ordained Brown in 1977 and assigned him to St. James Parish. Lessard left the Savannah diocese in 1988 and was replaced by two subsequent bishops who to their credit, began showing responsibility and taking action against Brown, first to remove him from the active priesthood, and then to initiate de-frocking, which occurred in 2004.
By then more damage had been done, as Brown had pleaded guilty in 2002 in Maryland to child abuse and battery for abusing a teenage boy and his younger brother between 1974 and 1977, when Brown was preparing for the priesthood. Sentenced in 2002 to ten years in prison, he was released five years later.
Beyond these settlements, which total nearly $9 million, the diocese says it has taken action to prevent such abuse from happening again and did so beginning in 2002.
“The diocese has made substantial progress in conducting background checks and educating all priests, deacons, religious, lay employees and volunteers to provide a safe environment for all children throughout the diocese.” More than 18,000 adults working with children for the diocese have gone through “safe environment” training, according to the diocese.
That so many young people, boys and girls, around the world were sexually violated by the very men they were supposed to revere and trust is a shame that can’t go away. But the church is now taking responsibility legally and has taken steps to clean up its act. The current bishop, Gregory Hartmayer, initiated Brown’s de-frocking process and is pledging vigilance to prevent further abuses, and he deserves credit for that.
As for Brown, he is living in Baltimore and continues to be listed on Maryland’s sex offender registry. He is 72. Neither of the two settlements cover his own liability for his actions.
Bishop Hartmayer said the large settlement “demonstrates our care and concern for victims of sexual misconduct by diocesan employees or volunteers.”
That’s as it should be. As it’s not enough just to be sorry for one’s sins to be forgiven, a reconciliation must take place. Paying a large settlement to an innocent victim is part of that process. So is learning from past mistakes and negligence, which the diocese has done. It also has opened an office for the Protection of Children and Young People, which has a toll free reporting hotline: 888-357-5330.