Breaking Church's Sex-Abuse Secrecy Deal
Strict Pact Bound Victim
By Eric Gorski
December 18, 2005
The package arrived in Joe McGee's mailbox in September 1996. The Sterling insurance agent had waited a long time for this: a settlement offer crafted by attorneys for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver.
McGee hoped it would ease the anger he carried for 40 years against his childhood priest, the Rev. John Stein. McGee says Stein sexually abused him hundreds of times over a three-year period in the 1950s at St. Catherine of Siena parish in the plains town of Iliff.
McGee said he didn't closely read the 3�-page legal document before signing it.
He said he was angry after going back and forth with an archdiocesan official for five years about just compensation. He wanted to be done with it. He realizes now it was a mistake.
"When I look back, the thing that hurts the most is the isolation I lived in because I had to keep the secret," said McGee, 63.
What McGee signed, attorneys for abuse victims and Catholic dioceses elsewhere say, was a confidentiality agreement that was unusually broad in scope.
McGee signed away his ability to sue or tell anyone about the settlement amount. The archdiocese admitted no wrongdoing in paying him. That's all standard in any settlement, lawyers say.
But there was more: McGee could not talk about the abuse itself, according to a copy of the agreement McGee provided. One exception is if McGee seeks treatment, in which case his doctor would be bound to the pact.
If McGee didn't live up to his word, the church not only would get back the $10,000 it paid him but also could go after McGee for additional damages.
In speaking out publicly, McGee sheds light on a practice that has received little attention since the clergy sexual-abuse scandal belatedly hit the Denver archdiocese this year with 14 lawsuits accusing church officials of covering up for abusive priests.
Secret pacts ended in '02 For decades, the use of secrecy pacts in out-of-court settlements obscured the full scope of clergy sexual abuse in the United States. In exchange, church officials kept a lid on damaging information, victims preserved their privacy, and plaintiffs' attorneys took their cut, usually between 30 percent and 40 percent of the settlement amount.
As part of reforms adopted in 2002 at the scandal's height, U.S. Catholic bishops forbade the use of confidential settlements except for "grave and substantial reasons brought forward by the victim/survivor."
Fran Maier, chancellor of the Denver archdiocese, declined to answer questions about how prevalent confidentiality deals were in the 24-county archdiocese, but he said there have been none since 2002.
The archdiocese's previous disclosures about the scope of the abuse problem in Denver indicate cash payments were rare or for small amounts.
In 2004, the archdiocese disclosed that its insurers had paid $997,730 for counseling and settlements to victims since 1950, a pittance compared with dioceses that have endured greater scandal.
Maier would not discuss McGee's deal or whether the archdiocese would take action against him for breaking the pact.
"The archdiocese honors its agreements with others," Maier said. "We expect the same fidelity from anyone or any entity that enters into an agreement with the archdiocese. To behave or expect any differently would violate our obligations to the people of the archdiocese. The resources we steward belong to them."
"A special love" McGee alleges that Stein first molested him in 1953, when McGee was a 10-year-old altar boy staying overnight at the parish rectory.
McGee said the abuse continued twice a week for three years, including on a road trip in the priest's 1953 Chevy to Canada and the Grand Canyon.
"I was told this was normal, that you just can't talk about it because people wouldn't understand, that it was a special love," said McGee, who traces his past alcohol problems and suicidal thoughts to the molestation.
McGee kept his silence until 1992, when news reports of a Massachusetts priest accused of child sex abuse prompted him to contact church officials.
McGee provided The Denver Post copies of his correspondence with the archdiocese. In a May 1992 response to McGee, R. Walker Nickless, secretary for priests and seminarians, wrote that the Vatican had laicized Stein, or removed him from the priesthood. He did not say why. By that time, Stein was living in the Mullen Home for the Aged, a Catholic facility in Denver.
Public records indicate Stein died in 2001. Maier would not disclose Stein's assignments or any part of his church work history. Stein's name does not appear in church directories dating to 1960, the first year available.
In 1992, Nickless apologized to McGee and offered to meet with him and provide counseling from a psychotherapist priest. In a follow-up letter in 1993, Nickless wrote, "I want you to know that we do believe you."
"We are very concerned and care deeply for you," wrote Nickless, who was recently appointed bishop of Sioux City, Iowa. "I want to assure you again that none of us feel what happened to you was appropriate."
McGee wasn't satisfied. Beginning in 1993, McGee wrote, asking for money.
First, it was $42,000, what he estimated he had given to the church over the years. He later asked for $100,000, then $50,000.
Nickless wrote in November 1993 that "we are not able to respond to you financially" but again offered counseling.
After McGee met in 1996 with the archdiocese's conduct response team, which fields clergy sexual-abuse allegations, the archdiocese agreed to consider McGee's request for money to cover medical expenses. The settlement proposal arrived in the mail shortly thereafter.
"It made me feel like I really lost," McGee said. "It made me feel like they could do anything they wanted and threw peanuts at me as a way to appease me."
Cash settlements resisted Other men who have accused Denver priests in recent months say that when confronted with a claim, the archdiocese consistently offers to pay for counseling but resists cash settlements.
"They just told me they didn't have the money - that they'd pay for therapy but not a cash amount for damages," said Roy Starks, who approached the archdiocese in 2002 with decades-old allegations against the Rev. Leonard Abercrombie.
Starks said the church has paid for his counseling for the past four years and he was not asked to sign a confidentiality pact.
Since 2002, several victims nationwide have broken confidentiality agreements to speak out. One of the first was Mark Serrano, a former altar boy from New Jersey. Serrano's agreement, unlike McGee's, did not expose him to repaying the church his settlement, for $350,000.
"I was a good Catholic kid, and I stuck to my word for 17 years," said Serrano, who is active in the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "All it did was put other kids at risk because I lived up to my end of the bargain at a great personal sacrifice. As victims, we need a voice. In order to heal, we need to be able to talk to other people."
Serrano and others are calling for all U.S. bishops to release victims from confidentiality agreements, so far to little effect. The Archdiocese of New York, for one, declared all secrecy deals null and void three years ago.
"If a person truly wants the matter kept quiet or confidential, it benefits that person," said Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston lawyer who refused confidentiality agreements in representing victims of defrocked priest John Geoghan. "But for decades these things were kept quiet. Now we all know why."
Jeff Anderson of St. Paul, Minn., who represents plaintiffs accusing former Colorado priest Harold Robert White, said he has never signed a confidentiality agreement, which he called "morally reprehensible" vehicles for protecting the church.
Anderson said that in 24 years, he has never seen an agreement similar to Denver's in terms of the financial consequences of violating confidentiality.
Some plaintiffs' attorneys, he said, are taking advantage of the bishops' new policy on confidentiality agreements by telling the church they'll ask for a secrecy pact in return for more money.
Neither Garabedian, Anderson nor lawyers who have worked for the church can cite a single case of a diocese taking action against a victim who has violated a confidentiality deal.
Lawyers with sympathies to the church, such as Patrick J. Schiltz, say hardball legal tactics are more often than not the work of plaintiffs' attorneys or attorneys representing the church's insurance carriers.
Schiltz, a professor at the St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, who represented Catholic churches in sexual-misconduct cases between 1987 and 1995, wrote in the Catholic magazine Commonweal that victims often ask for confidentiality for privacy's sake. He noted that secrecy usually extended only to the settlement amount, not to victims' ability to speak out.
"It was the plaintiffs' lawyers who would sometimes make two settlement demands: a lower demand that did not include a secrecy agreement and a higher demand that did," Schiltz wrote.
McGee isn't worried There also may be legitimate reasons for reducing publicity, said Douglas Laycock, a University of Texas law professor and former counsel for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"What the one side looks at like a shameful coverup, to the other side looks like a response to a problem that has affected 2 or 3 percent of priests and an infinitesimal percent of the faithful getting attention to the exclusion of everything else the church does," Laycock said.
McGee said he isn't worried about the consequences of breaking his 9-year-old agreement.
"If they want to sue me, let them," he said. "I don't think they will. They don't want all the exposure that would give them."
McGee said he wrestled with whether to cash the $10,000 settlement check, but he did.
He took the money and bought a burial plot for himself in a Catholic cemetery in Sterling overlooking the South Platte River.
Staff writer Eric Gorski can be reached at 303-820-1698 or email@example.com.
A QUESTION OF TRUST / Colorado priests accused The story so far:
In July, The Denver Post publishes the story of Brandon Trask, a California man who alleges that then-Catholic priest Harold Robert White sexually abused him as a child in the 1970s when White worked in Minturn, in Eagle County.
In subsequent days, more than a dozen others come forward to accuse White of abuse dating from the early 1960s to the early 1980s. They include White's godson, a man dying of AIDS and a Sterling woman.
According to interviews and church documents obtained by The Post, the archdiocese was warned about White as early as the 1960s but continued to move him from parish to parish.
The archdiocese confirms that White left public ministry in 1993 and was laicized, or stripped of the Roman collar, in 2004 for undisclosed reasons. In an interview with a Denver TV station, White says the allegations contain "half-truths."
In August, the first lawsuit is filed against the Denver archdiocese naming White. A total of 13 lawsuits involving White have been filed.
The Post in September reports allegations by three men who say another priest of the archdiocese, Leonard Abercrombie, sexually abused them as children from the 1950s to the 1970s.
One of Abercrombie's accusers, Roger Colburn, files a lawsuit 10 days later against the Denver archdiocese. Abercrombie, who died in 1994, is also the subject of a lawsuit in California, where he worked as a hospital chaplain.
The archdiocese is seeking to move the Colorado court cases from state to federal court, arguing they raise First Amendment issues. The parties are due back in court in February.
While refusing comment on specific allegations, the archdiocese has emphasized its commitment to protecting children, cooperating with authorities and helping all involved heal.
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