Key Archdiocese Talks Fall Apart

By Steve Woodward
The Oregonian [Portland Oregon]
September 8, 2005

SUMMARY: Men who say a priest abused them at a youth prison school opt for trial rather than settle after the state disparages them

Crucial settlement talks have collapsed between the Archdiocese of Portland and 15 men who say they were molested as teenagers by the prison chaplain at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn.

"I want to go to trial, and I don't care how long I have to wait," said Curtis Grecco, 46, a Portland man who says he was sexually abused in 1974. "It's been 30 years. I can wait a few more."

All 15 allege they were molested by the Rev. Michael Sprauer, a 24-year veteran of the Oregon Department of Corrections who worked from 1972 to 1975 at what was then called the MacLaren School for Boys.

Sprauer, the archdiocese and the state, which operates MacLaren, dismiss the claims.

"They've admitted to 3,000 felonies," William C. Tharp, the assistant attorney general who is defending the state in the Sprauer cases, said of the group as a whole.

"We have reason to believe that these people are fabricating their claim," Tharp said, "and they absolutely have nothing to lose in doing so."

Daniel J. Gatti, the lawyer for the 15 men, said he believes his clients. After the current round of mediations ends next week, he said he will ask the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for permission to take the cases to trial. The lawsuits, dating to 2003 and 2004, were frozen when the archdiocese sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in July 2004.

The archdiocese has made the mediations the centerpiece of its bankruptcy strategy. The Sprauer cases constitute the largest bloc of the 66 sex-abuse cases now in settlement talks with the archdiocese, the state, Mount Angel Abbey and Roman Catholic religious orders.

If the mediations fail, the archdiocese's strategy will take a double blow. First, the church will find itself in the same position it faced before bankruptcy: staring at millions of dollars in claims that probably will go to trial.

Second, the church will not have enough settlement amounts to use as a guide for estimating the value of the remaining 180 or so claims, plus any claims that might be filed in the future. Those estimates, in turn, are essential for developing a plan to emerge from bankruptcy.

"The main point for the mediations," said David A. Foraker, the lawyer who represents future claimants, "was to create greater certainty for the archdiocese with regard to the level of its exposure on sex-abuse claims."

If they go to trial, the Sprauer cases are a big potential liability for the archdiocese, which is being sued for $55 million as Sprauer's employer. Amounts are not known for six additional Sprauer-related claims against the archdiocese.

Sprauer won't talk publicly. His lawyer, Thomas E. Cooney, says his client vehemently denies the allegations.

"They were adamant in their denial of any liability," Gatti said of Sprauer's defenders, "adamant they weren't going to raise their offer."

Neither side disclosed the amount of the offer.

Sprauer, the archdiocese and the state are confident about their case. Sprauer's defenders are quick to point out that all 15 accusers went on to amass criminal records that range from drunken driving to attempted murder. Two are serial sex offenders.

Grecco, who thinks he and the other plaintiffs have the stronger cases, takes issue with the suggestion that they are lying about the abuse.

"Just because a man's been in prison doesn't mean this didn't happen," said Grecco. He alleges that Sprauer molested him seven times in two MacLaren segregation cells in 1974, when he was 15 and incarcerated for assault and burglary.

An additional six men who allege sexual abuse by Sprauer's predecessor at MacLaren, the late Rev. Remy Rudin, also are seeking to leave the mediations. Two more alleged Rudin victims already have seen their negotiations fall through.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Elizabeth Perris on Monday responded to the Rudin claimants' request by giving the court-appointed mediators discretion to cancel mediations, said Erin K. Olson, the claimants' lawyer.


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