Latest Polka Padre Ruling Hits Sour Note with Juror
The Polka Padre is the Rev. Robert Kapoun, who was known for playing dance music after his masses. Oom-pah-pah, oom-pah-pah. Oh, what a joyful guy, the Polka Padre.
Except that when the music stopped, the Polka Padre became the Pedophile Padre and sexually preyed upon vulnerable boys. When, in the 1980s, his superiors in the Catholic Church heard rumors of the transgressions of guys such as the Polka Padre, they gave them new assignments. And the band played on.
The sick party ended in February 1996, when a Hennepin County jury found that the Polka Padre and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis should pay a 30-year-old man, Dale Scheffler, $ 1.1 million in damages for damage done to his life by the Polka Padre and a negligent church structure.
Susan Yerigan was forewoman of the jury that sat through two weeks of sordid testimony.
"None of us wanted to be on that jury," she recalled. "But we had a job to do and we did it."
Yerigan was angry when the Minnesota Court of Appeals undid the jury's work last month. The Appeals Court ruled that Scheffler had waited too long to voice his claims against the Polka Padre, and therefore had no claim to justice in Minnesota. Scheffler was 14 in 1981, when he says he was abused by Polka Padre. He didn't bring civil action against Kapoun until 1994.
Yerigan's anger boiled to the point that she called the newspaper when she learned that lawyers for the archdiocese and the Polka Padre had billed Scheffler for part of the costs they'd incurred for appealing the case.
"I don't think we need to increase negativity toward the government or the Catholic Church," she said. "But what's happened in this case has been an insult to the jury and the judge [Hennepin County District Judge Gary Larson]. When they reversed our decision, they slapped every one of us in the face. . . . And then, when they [the church and Kapoun] asked for the money, I was blown out. These people had an obligation to go by what's right and what's wrong and they didn't do that. They found technicalities. They took our judicial system and a religious belief system and they turned them into power games."
Attorneys for the church and the priest have said the bills sent to Scheffler last week were "just routine" and that they never expect to collect the $ 6,018 they say he owes. However, Scheffler's attorney, Jeff Anderson, says the bills represent something more odious.
"They are one more attempt to back down any other survivors [of sex abuse] who might speak out," Anderson said.
But Anderson acknowledges that bills Scheffler received are not as great an issue as the decision by the Appeals Court to overturn a jury decision. The court based its decision on a 1996 Minnesota Supreme Court ruling in a similar case. Combined, the rulings have all but gutted a significant part of a 1989 law that made the statute of limitations flexible in cases of sexual abuse. Under the 1989 law, victims had six years to initiate legal action after they knew or had reason to know that their injuries were caused by a sexual abuser. The state Supreme Court essentially has chopped off the "or had reason to know" part of the law.
After hearing testimony from experts and victims, both the Legislature and the Polka Padre's jury understood what the state Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals refuse to understand. A 14-year-old child, such as Scheffler was, may know that a creep such as the Pedophile Padre is doing something wrong, but the action of sex abuse is so destructive that it may take a lifetime for the victim to discover the basis and depth of the harm.
Sen. Ember Reichgott Junge, DFL-New Hope, tried to undo the damage done by the state Supreme Court during the legislative session. But, she said, "the climate in the Legislature has changed" since 1989 when it comes to such issues as "false memory" and "repressed memory." She plans to try to put the 1989 intent back into law next session.
Meanwhile, victims of people such as the Polka Padre are left with little protection under Minnesota law. And jurors such as Susan Yerigan are left trying to fight off cynicism. She heard - from experts, the archbishop and victims - things that the Appeals Court did not hear. She and the other members of the jury anguished over right and wrong. It was crystal clear to the jury that the Polka Padre had done evil, the church had done little and that Dale Scheffler had been deeply scarred.
"We tried to put ourselves in the mindset of a 14-year-old," said Yerigan of the jury's deliberations. "What do you do when a priest, who is so honored in his community, does something like this to you? Where do you turn?
"But we didn't want to beat the church to death. I'm one of those people who think we've become a sue-happy society. We said, 'Let's not get crazy here, let's be practical. Let's do what's right.' "
The jury was diligent, practical and responsible.
And, in the end, it also was ignored.
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