More Than $1 Million
Attorneys who handle sex abuse cases estimate that the U.S. church has paid out some $500 million in lawyer and settlement fees
By Leslie Wirpsa
National Catholic Reporter
March 1, 1996
A jury has ordered the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese to pay more than $1 million in punitive and compensatory damages to a man who was abused 15 years ago by a priest from the archdiocese.
Awarding $600,000 in punitive damages on Feb. 13, the Hennepin County jury ruled that the archdiocese acted with "willful indifference to the rights and safety of others" by "recklessly" employing an "unfit agent," Fr. Robert Kapoun, the priest declared guilty of abusing Dale Scheffler, 28.
The archdiocese, headed by Archbishop John Roach at the time, is now headed by Archbishop Harry Flynn.
A week earlier, the six women jurors awarded Sche[ffl]er $550,000 in compensatory damages in the civil trial, ruling that Kapoun, known as the "Polka Padre" because of music he used during Mass, molested the complainant in a cabin in 1981 during a camping outing.
The Scheffler case marks the third known time in sex abuse litigation that the Catholic church in the United States has been forced to pay punitive damages, according to David Clohessy, national director of the Chicago-based SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Most cases are settled out of court and involve compensatory damages. Attorneys who handle such cases estimate that the U.S. church has paid out some $500 million in lawyer and settlement fees.
"This verdict is dramatically important in the history of the Catholic church in America," said Scheffler's attorney Jeff Anderson. "It is a message to this diocese and archdiocese, and it should be a message to every diocese across this land that they cannot and should not continue the employment practices they have been countenancing so far."
Anderson said Kapoun's history of abuse dates back to 1973, when a monsignor reported to Roach that the priest had been accused of allegedly molesting a child Archdiocesan officials allowed him to continue serving his parish. After another youth and his parents came forward to report abuse by Kapoun in 1984, threatening to go to the sheriff, the priest was moved to another parish, Anderson said.
Kapoun admitted to his archdiocesan superiors in 1984 that he had been involved sexually with boys. He denied molesting Schemer.
Roach, who retired last September after heading the archdiocese for 20 years, testified for almost three hours Feb. 12 in the punitive damage case. Roach said Kapoun was allowed to continue serving parishes because he had become a "new changed man" in 1987 after receiving psychological assistance and spiritual counseling. Roach said Kapoun had also undergone a "religious experience" and that he was a "dramatically changed person ... believable, holy, very honest about things he'd done in the past."
In a Feb. 13 letter, Flynn said the archdiocese kept Kapoun in ministry "after he acknowledged some wrongdoing in his past" because "professional counselors ... believed he had successfully dealt with this area of his life and was capable of healthy ministry." Flynn stated that, through a series of six meetings, "the members of Kapoun's parish ... were (made) fully aware of his past problem" and that they also believed he was capable of ministry.
Flynn echoed Roach's comments that Kapoun "experienced a profound spiritual conversion in the early 1980s, well after any alleged misconduct took place."
Flynn acknowledged Kapoun "was not completely forthright with officials of the archdiocese about the extent of his misbehavior prior to the first report of misconduct."
Kapoun continued serving the St. Scholastica Parish in Heidelberg, Minn., until the Scheffler trial began.
Feb. 8, the day after he was awarded $550,000 in compensatory damages, Scheffler held a news conference outside the courtroom and "literally begged" Flynn to remove Kapoun, according to Clohessy.
That same day, the archdiocese released a letter to priests, deacons and church employees stating that Kapoun had agreed to step down this spring. Two other men have charged Kapoun with sexual abuse in the Minnesota courts.
The first punitive verdict for sex abuse against the church, a 1990 ease, also involved a priest from the Minneapolis St. Paul archdiocese Fr. Thomas Adamson. In that case, a jury granted a $2.8 million punitive award, which a judge subsequently reduced to $100,000. St. Paul attorney Anderson also represented the victim on that occasion.
Regarding the Scheffler case, SNAP founder Barbara Blaine said, "It is outrageous that Roach gambled with the lives of the children in the perishes. l hope this verdict means the church will now learn its lesson. I hope all of the bishops in the country will now remove perpetrator priests, making it clear that priests who have abused do not belong in ministry."
Church officials have pointed to the policy adopted by the Minneapolis St. Paul archdiocese as a model for confronting sex abuse.
Anderson said, "It is very frightening if this is the model. If others are following this lead, every child across the country in the entire community of the faithful has had their lives gambled with," Anderson said.
Flynn said the award of punitive damages would have a negative effect on the archdiocese's long-term ability to serve future needs, "particularly in our support for inner-city schools, outreach to the homeless and other social services. "
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