Catholic Church Pays Dade Youth
By Jay Weaver
September 26, 2003
The Archdiocese of Miami wrote checks totaling $500,000 on Thursday to resolve the case of a boy who accused a priest of molesting him at a nursing home - the first settlement of more than two dozen local sexual-abuse lawsuits filed since the nationwide clergy scandal broke last year.
The archdiocese's decision to settle for a significant sum could mean millions of dollars in payouts ahead, if the other abuse claims are found to be credible.
What sets the settlement apart from earlier ones involving the archdiocese is that it was not bound by a confidentiality agreement that kept the previous cases out of court and the public record.
"The openness is important for the victims because they're standing up not only for themselves but on behalf of other victims, too," said Hollywood attorney Jeffrey Herman, who represented the boy and has 11 other cases pending against the archdiocese.
In a statement, church officials admitted no negligence.
"Based on the advice of our legal counsel and factoring in the cost of protracted litigation, the archdiocese decided to resolve this matter without further litigation," according to the statement. Church officials declined to respond to a list of written questions from The Herald.
Before last year, Catholic Church officials in South Florida had privately settled more than a dozen sexual-abuse cases for millions of dollars. But the once-cloistered world of sexual-abuse litigation burst open last year, leading to stricter Catholic Church rules to crack down on offenders and report them to authorities.
The uproar prompted the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to adopt a charter encouraging archdioceses to resolve abuse cases as quickly and openly as possible while respecting the privacy of victims. Earlier this month, the Archdiocese of Boston reached an $85 million settlement with almost 550 people who claimed they were sexually abused by priests.
"The general tenor of the charter indicates that where there are legitimate cases, settle as much as you can," said Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. bishops. "The whole attitude is to be as open about these cases as possible."
She added, however, that each archdiocese has the authority to call its own shots on abuse cases.
In Miami, the archdiocese said the first open settlement did not portend others on the horizon. "Decisions regarding any further settlements will be made on a case-by-case basis," church officials said in their statement.
The case involved a boy who accused the Rev. Trevor Smith of fondling him four years ago during visits to the boy's ailing grandmother at the Villa Maria Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in North Miami.
The boy was 11 years old at the time.
The boy said Smith lured him into his room at the nursing home, where he showed the child a book with pictures of nude children. Then the priest forced the boy to fondle him while he fondled the boy.
Herman said the settlement has given his client a psychological lift after suffering from depression and other emotional trauma.
SEEN AS VALIDATION
"The worst thing for a victim is not to be believed and to be accused of being a liar, because it revictimizes him," Herman said. "The settlement validates the victim's accusations."
The boy and his mother will receive about $300,000, and Herman will get about $200,000 for attorney's fees and expenses, according to the settlement approved by the archdiocese, the boy's lawyer, his court-appointed guardian ad litem and Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey.
In the prepared statement, the archdiocese said it did not know about the allegations until the boy sued the church and Smith a year ago. At that point, the church said, it notified Miami-Dade prosecutors, who are investigating the allegations.
Church officials said that Smith, 66, has denied the boy's allegations. He retired in April 2002, without explanation, after serving in various South Florida parishes and Catholic nursing homes.
Smith's attorney, Douglas McIntosh, said his client never admitted wrongdoing in the civil litigation, prosecutors have not charged him and he was not a party to the settlement.
As part of the agreement, Smith was dropped as a defendant, court records show.
Those records also show that the archdiocese and McIntosh aggressively fought the release of internal church documents about Smith's 35-year career as a priest in South Florida.
While Herman pushed for their release, he and the archdiocese agreed to mediation in an attempt to settle the case because his client did not want to face a trial and church officials did not want to go public with those records.
Both the archdiocese and McIntosh filed a "privilege log" noting that Smith underwent counseling in 1973 by the Rev. Thomas Kane, a psychologist, and Sister Anna Polcino, a psychiatrist. They co-founded a Massachusetts treatment center, House of Affirmation, for priests with a variety of psychological problems, including pedophilia.
The Miami court log does not specify why Smith saw Kane, Polcino and another psychiatrist, Conrad Baars. They sent a series of letters to Miami church leaders about Smith's psychotherapy, including a notation about a "penitent clergy."
The House of Affirmation was eventually rocked by its own scandal.
In 1993, a former altar boy accused Kane of molesting him. He alleged that Kane passed him around to other priests in a sex ring. Kane was later sued by two other former altar boys.
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