Nearly 10 Years Later, Conflict over $12 Million Settlement between Catholic Diocese of Charleston and Victims of Sex Abuse Continues
By Gregory Yee
Post and Courier
May 12, 2017
After nearly a decade, legal wrangling continues over a $12 million settlement paid to victims who were sexually abused by Catholic priests in the Charleston area more than 30 years ago.
A lawsuit on behalf of one of the victims, identified only as John Doe 10, was filed in September 2010, according to court documents. The plaintiff was molested at his church school and parish beginning in 1983 according to the suit.
"The priest involved, Frederick Hopwood, had an extensive history of molesting children that covered the decades before 1983," the documents said.
Hopwood pleaded guilty on March 21, 1994, to one count of a lewd act upon a minor. As part of his plea agreement, the 9th Circuit Solicitor's Office gave Hopwood statewide immunity from further prosecution.
The case is scheduled to move forward on Monday and stems from fallout over the settlement.
The class-action lawsuit that led to the 2007 settlement was not advertised nationwide and left out victims who had moved away from South Carolina, said Gregg Meyers, a Charleston-based attorney representing John Doe 10 and six other victims named in the documents.
"John Doe 10, and the other respondents, each lived in a state other than South Carolina in 2007," the documents said. "(He) continues to live out of state."
The current suit names Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston officials, The Most Rev. Robert E. Guglielmone, Bishop of Charleston; Rev. Monsignor Martin Laughlin, a former administrator of the Diocese; and former Bishop of Charleston Robert J. Baker, as well as two attorneys who negotiated the settlement Lawrence E. Richter, Jr. and David K. Haller.
On March 31, a Circuit Court judge denied a motion made by the Diocese to dismiss the case, according to court documents.
Church officials also filed a motion with the S.C. Court of Appeals to stay Monday's trial but the motion was denied, Meyers said.
The Diocese claimed in 2007 that they wanted to provide assistance to all people impacted by the abuse, he said.
We want to make them keep their promise, Meyers said.
Monday's trial will be bifurcated, meaning proceedings will only involve church officials.
Meyers said he plans to move forward with proceedings against Richter and Haller if the case against the Diocese isn't successful.
"In the first stage, the Diocese is alleged to have been negligent in supervising its priest who it knew, or should have known, was dangerous to children," court documents said. "In the second, potential state ... the lawyer defendants are alleged to have been professionally negligent in manipulating the class action, and to have done so with the full cooperation of the Diocese."
Reached by phone, Haller said he did not have comment on Monday's proceedings because they would not involve him. Richter could not be reached for comment.
Richard Dukes, Jr., a Charleston-based attorney for the Diocese, declined to comment, citing the pending trial.
"The Diocese plans to defend this matter in the most pastoral ways possible for all concerned," said Maria Aselage, spokesperson for the Diocese.
The original settlement was approved in August 2007 by a circuit judge in Dorchester County, about seven months after the class-action suit was brought.
The class-action case involved 129 claimants, said Meyers.
The settlement stipulated that payments could be made to eligible individuals who were born before Aug. 30, 1980 and were sexually abused by priests or diocese employees. Payments ranged from $10,000 to $200,000, depending on the type of alleged abuse. Spouses and parents of victims also could be eligible to receive a $20,000 payment.
Claims of sex abuse against the Diocese date back to the 1950s. Some involved offenders who were never reported to state authorities.
Meyers also represented a group of 11 clients who opted out of the class-action suit. He negotiated a separate settlement with the Diocese worth nearly $1.4 million, but getting his clients paid was a struggle.
In 2009, attorneys for a group of victims attempted to take a case to the S.C. Supreme Court, alleging that the Richter and Haller colluded with a circuit court judge and the diocese to pocket $2.5 million and steer away future molestation cases, according to the complaint.
The Supreme Court rejected the case.