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  Abuse Victims Get $3 Million
Springfield Diocese Reaches Settlement

By Lisa Kernek
State Journal-Register
February 3, 2004

The Catholic Diocese of Springfield said Monday it will pay a total of $3 million to 28 victims of childhood sexual abuse by clergy in the late 1970s or early 1980s.

The settlement follows three days of meetings with a mediator that concluded Saturday at the Catholic Pastoral Center in Springfield. "I think this is something that Bishop (George) Lucas has wanted for some time," said Kathie Sass, a diocese spokeswoman.

"He feels that if someone has been harmed" by childhood sexual abuse, "they deserve help. The best way to do that may not be an adversarial relationship in court."

The $3 million to the victims and their families is the biggest single payout to abuse victims in diocesan history.

The victims include 34-year-old Matthew McCormick, who sued the diocese in 1999 and accused the Rev. Alvin Campbell of sexually abusing him when he was a youth in Morrisonville between 1982 and 1985. His case will be dismissed.

The other 27 victims contacted the diocese without filing suit or had filed lawsuits that were dismissed by the courts.

McCormick, of Springfield, said Monday he and some other victims would use money from the settlement to start a foundation to help victims of sexual abuse.

"Everybody was just so happy for the recognition," McCormick said. "That's what's important is we got recognition. We didn't care about the money."

Each victim received varying amounts depending on the nature of the abuse, said Frederic Nessler, the lawyer for McCormick and others.

A written statement from the diocese said the money for the settlement would come from a combination of interest on investments, the sale of assets and perhaps loans. No money would be taken from parish collections or from restricted funds or endowments designated for specific purposes.

McCormick and other victims attended last week's mediation sessions, which included an emotional meeting with Lucas. There, the bishop apologized and promised to change how victims of abuse are treated, McCormick said.

"He got to know each and every one of us on an individual basis," McCormick said.

Lucas, who's been the bishop in Springfield for just more than three years, released a statement stressing the diocese is committed to the protection of children.

"We promise to receive any allegations of the sexual abuse of a minor respectfully and to investigate them thoroughly," Lucas said.

Campbell was sentenced in 1985 to 14 years in prison. He pleaded guilty but mentally ill to charges of abusing at least seven teenage boys while he was pastor at the Morrisonville church from 1982 to 1985. Campbell served almost seven years of his sentence and was released in 1992. He has since died.

McCormick's lawsuit also accused then-Bishop Daniel Ryan of having multiple homosexual relationships, including one involving a 15-year-old boy in 1984. The allegations against Ryan were presented in the suit to try to prove the former bishop's alleged actions created an atmosphere within the diocese that tolerated child abuse.

Ryan served as bishop from 1984 until 1999.

None of the accused clergy members works in ministry anymore, Sass said.

Ryan resigned as bishop in October 1999, one week before McCormick's case was filed in Sangamon County Circuit Court. Ryan maintained at the time, however, that his resignation was unrelated to the allegations of sexual misconduct.

In 2002, the diocese referred the allegations involving Ryan and the 15-year-old to the state's attorney's office. But prosecutors declined to pursue the matter because the statute of limitations had expired.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich in July signed legislation that increases the statute of limitations for sexual abuse cases. The new law expands the window of opportunity for filing a civil suit from two to 10 years after a victim of sexual abuse reaches adulthood.

McCormick's lawsuit became the first test of the new statute of limitations. Lawyers argued the statute's constitutionality at a Dec. 2 hearing before a Sangamon County judge. The lawyers later asked the judge to refrain from making a ruling while they worked on a settlement.

"The pending ruling was pressure on both sides to get the case done," Nessler said. But "the bishop's attitude of trying to reach out and help these victims was the more important" factor, he added.

Lawsuits filed in September and January against the Springfield diocese are still pending.

A Georgia woman sued Friday in Madison County, alleging the Rev. Richard Niebrugge of the Springfield diocese sexually abused her for 16 years until his death in 1983.

She claims that Niebrugge - a priest in approximately 10 parishes, including Blessed Sacrament in Springfield - fathered her child. The alleged abuse occurred in Madison and St. Clair counties.

In September, five civil suits were filed, also in Madison County. Those cases named the Rev. Walter Weerts, a retired priest who served in the Springfield diocese. The lawsuits charged that he sexually abused five boys in the 1970s.

Weerts pleaded guilty in 1986 in Adams County to charges of sexual abuse and was sentenced to six years in prison.

 
 

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