For Dioceses, Legal Toll Quietly Rises
Tucson Settlement Typifies Catholic Church's Approach to Settling Sex Abuse Suits
By Alan Cooperman
January 30, 2002
A year ago, Donnie Frei and his parents finally confronted their former priest in court. They watched with deep satisfaction as Msgr. Robert C. Trupia was handcuffed and taken to jail to await trial on charges of sexually molesting Frei, now 39, and other former altar boys at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Yuma, Ariz., in the 1970s.
But the trial never took place.
Less than 24 hours after that initial court appearance, prosecutors reversed themselves and decided they could not bring a 25-year-old case under Arizona's statute of limitations. They dropped all the criminal charges, and Trupia returned to Silver Spring, Md., where he had lived for nearly a decade. Frustrated, the Frei family and other alleged victims pressed a civil lawsuit against the 53-year-old clergyman and the Catholic diocese of Tucson, which they accused of trying to cover up allegations of pedophilia against Trupia and three other priests. Yesterday, the diocese and the plaintiffs announced they had settled the suit for an undisclosed sum.
The settlement, which a person close to the case said was in the millions of dollars, is the latest of scores, and possibly hundreds, of payments made quietly by Catholic dioceses in the United States to end lawsuits alleging sexual abuse and negligence. A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former Benedictine monk who has been an expert witness for the plaintiffs in 57 of these lawsuits, estimates that the church has paid out $ 1 billion.
Mark Chopko, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called that figure "unfounded and inflammatory" but said "nobody knows" the true amount. The jury awards and settlements that have been publicly disclosed probably total between $ 200 million and $ 300 million, he said. In a few cases, he added, the payments have temporarily bankrupted entire dioceses.
National attention has focused recently on the archdiocese of Boston, which has paid more than $ 10 million to settle only a portion of the lawsuits arising from pedophilia charges against the former Rev. John J. Geoghan.
But the Geoghan case is unusual in several respects. Geoghan has been convicted in one criminal trial and is scheduled to go on trial again, in mid-February, on charges of raping a 7-year-old. Cardinal Bernard Law, the most senior Catholic clergyman in the United States, has admitted that he transferred Geoghan from parish to parish after learning of the sexual abuse allegations. And the Boston Globe persuaded a judge to unseal thousands of pages of documents about the church's handling of Geoghan.
Far more typical is the situation in Tucson, where most of the documents in the lawsuit are sealed. No trial -- civil or criminal -- is now likely, and Bishop Manuel D. Moreno yesterday offered public and private apologies to victims but did not take personal responsibility for allowing the abuse.
"We acknowledge that there have been failings in the past by some within our diocese to respond appropriately to reports of abuse," he said in a joint statement with Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas, who was appointed last year as his coadjutor, or designated successor.
While all the parties expressed some relief over yesterday's settlement, none was wholly satisfied.
The diocese is worried about its finances and is warning members that it may have to cut some programs. Trupia remains a priest and continues to draw a small salary from the church, although he has been suspended from clerical duties. His lawyer, Stephen A. Shechtel of Rockville, said Trupia maintains his innocence but does not want to talk about "this very painful matter."
And the plaintiffs do not have the full measure of vindication they sought. Trupia "is scot-free," said Norma Grace Frei, the plaintiff's mother, while his victims remain scarred. "It's such an embarrassing thing for the boys," she said. "It's a Catholic community. Nobody talks to us about it. They just kind of try to walk on the other side of the street."
Ordained in 1973, Trupia's first assignment was at St. Francis of Assisi church in Yuma. There, the plaintiffs alleged, he repeatedly molested 11- and 12-year-old altar boys in the rectory after Sunday services.
In 1976, a former police officer named Ted Oswald, then a lay brother at St. Francis and now a priest in California, became suspicious. According to court depositions, Oswald was helping some of the boys with a school project when one of them asked whether Trupia was "queer." Oswald, surprised, asked what prompted the question.
"That's when the floodgates opened and everybody started saying what [Trupia] was doing to them," one of the former altar boys, Timothy Badgley, 40, said in an interview yesterday.
Badgley, who is not among the plaintiffs, said Oswald asked the boys to write out statements, which he took to superiors in the diocese. Within days, Trupia was removed from Yuma. The boys' families were told that the priest was being treated for pedophilia.
According to the plaintiffs, however, there is no evidence that Trupia underwent treatment. Rather, he was transferred to Our Mother of Sorrows, a Tucson parish and school where he taught sex education and ran a "Come and See" program to show high school boys what it might be like to become a priest.
With regular access to young people, the plaintiffs alleged, Trupia preyed on so many young boys in Tucson from 1976 through the 1980s that other priests nicknamed him "Chicken Hawk." But according to depositions cited at preliminary hearings, at least two priests who raised questions about Trupia's behavior were told by superiors to mind their own business, and all reports of pedophilia -- including the handwritten statements from the Yuma altar boys -- disappeared from his personnel file.
Alleging that the diocese of Tucson had engaged in a "massive coverup," the plaintiffs' attorneys sought both actual and punitive damages on behalf of 10 victims and six of their parents in a total of 11 separate lawsuits.
In past cases, punitive awards have vastly increased the cost of such lawsuits to the church. In 1997, a Texas jury awarded $ 119.6 million to nine former altar boys sexually abused by a Dallas priest. Fearing that the diocese would declare bankruptcy, the plaintiffs settled for $ 23.4 million. Similarly, a California jury in 1998 awarded $ 30 million to two brothers who had been molested by a priest for most of their young lives; they later settled for $ 7.65 million.
Last year, a court order forced the diocese of Tucson to provide the plaintiffs with documents from its secret archives, including affidavits that Moreno sent to the Vatican in 1994 and 1995. The affidavits are now sealed. But in a deposition that is part of the public record, Moreno said he informed the Vatican that Trupia admitted to being a "loose cannon" who was unfit to serve as a priest and threatened to reveal that he, Trupia, had had a sexual relationship with the bishop of Phoenix. Moreno said he looked into the allegation and decided it was false.
Badgley, the former altar boy, said he did not participate in the lawsuit because "it happened so long ago, and I didn't really want to relive it." But he said he was glad the plaintiffs won a settlement, particularly after the abortive attempt to prosecute Trupia.
"Innocent? Hah," he said. "He can take that right to the grave and deal with it later."
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