Jury Awards $ 750,000 in Suit against Diocese
By Jeffery Kurz
November 22, 1995
A jury awarded $ 750,000 Tuesday to a Fort Thomas man abused by convicted molester Earl Bierman and told the Diocese of Covington it was more responsible for the abuse than Bierman himself.
After 10 days of trial and five hours of deliberation, jurors returned a unanimous decision:
John Secter, who was abused by the priest in the mid-1970s while a student at Covington Latin School, deserved $ 50,000 in compensation for his emotional suffering;
The diocese should be punished with the extra $ 700,000 because its handling of complaints about Bierman dating to 1961 constituted oppression, fraud or malice.
The suit was the first public airing of many of the details about Bierman's abuse of Catholic boys in Northern Kentucky, beginning in the early 1960s.
Witnesses in the trial testified about at least 73 reports of abuse by Bierman, many of which were reported to the diocese before Secter was victimized. Other cases have been settled out of court, and several are still pending.
The award was smaller than the "seven-digit" figure Secter's attorneys said would be warranted.
Secter, now a 36-year-old veterinarian, said he was thrilled with the decision and relieved the case was over.
He said he was very glad more light was finally shed on the fact that the diocese knew about Bierman's problems for years and did not prevent him from having access to other boys.
"The hows and whys are known," he said, standing outside the courtroom with his wife, Lisa, who attended every day of the trial and was its last witness.
"I'm very happy about that."
He paused for a few seconds when asked if he felt justice had been served. "I can't have my childhood back," he said. "I will never have my childhood back. . . . No one can magically transport me back to those years."
And he bristled at the defense's suggestion that he filed the suit only to make money, saying that was "absolutely 100 percent wrong."
Secter said Bierman, a teacher at Covington Latin, rubbed his thighs and rubbed his face several times beginning in 1972. He also said Bierman once touched his genitals in the summer of 1976, just after his graduation from the school.
The verdict let Secter out of the statute-of-limitations requirement that he should have filed the suit by Jan. 12, 1978, the day he turned 19. Jurors decided the diocese's handling of the many other boys' complaints about Bierman obstructed Secter's ability to know all the facts before the statute of limitations expired.
The jurors did assign 25 percent of the blame in the case to Bierman, but the imprisoned priest will not have to pay any money. He had been dismissed as a defendant.
Bierman is serving a 20-year sentence in the Kentucky State Reformatory for 28 counts of sexual abuse to which he pleaded guilty in May 1993.
The diocese's 75 percent blame means it will be ordered to pay 75 percent of the $ 50,000, or $ 37,500. The entire amount of punitive damages will be assigned to the diocese.
Diocese attorney Kurt Philipps would not comment after the verdict or say whether an appeal would be filed.
Monsignor Donald Hellmann, diocese administrator since Bishop William Hughes retired this summer, issued a statement in which he said the diocese regrets that past administrators did not have more knowledge about treating sexual abusers.
"Our contention in court has not been to deny the harm," he wrote. "The diocese did not try to hide it, only to deal with it as the church and the community at large were able."
Hellmann stressed the church still wants to help any victims and will pay for their counseling. It has paid for therapy for Secter and will continue to do so.
Jurors asked two questions while deliberating. The first was why Bierman - who was only part of the case via a videotaped deposition - remained among those to whom they could assign a percentage of blame.
The second was whether any guidelines existed for how much money could be awarded. Kenton Circuit Judge Gregory Bartlett told them only that they should use their discretion based upon the evidence.
Jurors apparently rejected Philipps' allegation during closing arguments that Secter was in it for the money. "Be reasonable," Philipps said. "Don't reward him. Don't give him money so he can go out and buy a Mercedes."
Jury foreman Richard Vance and the other five men and six women on the panel declined to discuss their decision.
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