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  Pair Sue Diocese over Sex Cover-Up; Racketeering Law Used for 1st Time

By Michael Clancy
Arizona Republic (Phoenix)
August 8, 2003

Two victims of sexual abuse at the hands of priests say the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix's lack of compassion for their cases prompted the civil lawsuits they filed Thursday, apparently the first cases locally to cite federal racketeering laws for sexual abuse cover-ups in the diocese.

The complaints accuse the diocese and former Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien of conspiring to protect priests from charges of sexual misconduct. The lawsuit didn't specify damages.

Phoenix attorney Richard Treon said the two cases are the first instances of racketeering statutes being used to sue the church in Arizona.

The racketeering laws "will allow us to show there was a criminal enterprise engaged in the pattern and practice of criminal behavior," he said, referring to abuse cover-ups.

Treon's co-counsel, Jeffrey Anderson of St. Paul, Minn., said, "This is an important day in terms of developing a strategy" to take on the church.

Benjamin Kulina of Mesa and his parents filed one lawsuit. He was abused by the Rev. John Giandelone in 1979. John Starkey of Phoenix and his parents filed the second case. He was abused by the Rev. Joseph Lessard in 1985.

Both priests have been convicted of criminal charges relating to the abuse. Lessard served three years' probation after his 1985 conviction and was removed permanently from ministry in June 2002. Giandelone, who left the priesthood in 1992, pleaded guilty to two counts of molestation in January and is serving a 22-month sentence in state prison.

The lawsuits were announced at a midday news conference attended by numerous abuse victims, their families and attorneys.

Kulina and Starkey said the lawsuits would not have been filed if they had not been denied their say with Archbishop Michael Sheehan. Sheehan, from New Mexico, became the temporary administrator of the diocese June 19, when O'Brien resigned after being charged with leaving the scene of a fatal accident.

Starkey said he has made more than a dozen calls to the diocese with no reply.

Kulina said that when he and his mother, Peggy, met with Sheehan on Monday, the archbishop knew nothing about the case and "appeared to be going through the motions."

"My mother hoped to have her chance to express her feelings, and this man shut her down," he said. "He minimized what took place."

Sheehan said he has been meeting with victims since he took over the diocese.

"I am deeply saddened to receive the news that Ben Kulina and his mother were so unhappy," Sheehan said late Thursday. "I did the best I could to apologize to him and her for the abuse he suffered. I tried to listen with my heart to what was said and apologized without trying to explain away the real concerns he has. Ben's anger is quite deep. I pray for healing and reconciliation between us."

Treon, representing both men, said the lawsuits are an attempt to "finish the work" done by a Maricopa County grand jury and Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley. Romley has indicted six priests since he struck an immunity agreement for O'Brien in early May. The agreement has no bearing on civil cases.

Treon notes that Romley has released no report on the investigation, nor have documents been released.

"This is about the children of yesterday," Treon said. "These are the forgotten children, who have suffered throughout their lives because of the policies and procedures" of the church.

Anderson has been involved in more than 800 similar cases nationwide, he said.

He argues that the conspiracy to protect priests went all the way to the pope. He cited a recently revealed 1962 document from the Vatican that appears to impose a veil of secrecy on all proceedings regarding sexual abuse.

The diocese called Anderson's interpretation of the document "misleading and unfair" because it dealt only with sexual solicitation during confessions, and because it was replaced by later documents.

Both Phoenix lawsuits list 12 counts, including violations of the state Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, law, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, conspiracy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and intentional failure to supervise clergy.

CORRECTION:

Published ran 8/9/03: In a story on Page B1 on Friday about lawsuits against the Diocese of Phoenix, the first paragraph should have said state racketeering laws were cited in the cases.

 
 

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