Suits Accusing Dead Priests Raise Tough Issues for Church, Families
Relatives and supporters of these priests say it's traumatic to hear of the accusations when the priests cannot defend themselves, and church officials say it's difficult to evaluate such claims without knowing the priest's side of the story.
The priests, who have been dead for periods ranging from one to 36 years, include a cathedral pastor, a superintendent of Catholic schools, a director of Catholic Charities and the longest-serving American priest of his era.
[Photo caption: In lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Louisville, 34 people say they were molested in the 1960s and '70s by the Rev. Arthur L. Wood, left, who died in 1983.; The accusation against the Rev. Thomas Casper opened wounds, said his niece, Alice Wickman: "The fact that his memory is now being tarnished is a tremendous burden to my family."]
Since April the archdiocese has been sued by 184 people; the suits allege that church officials covered up sexual abuse by 24 priests, two religious brothers, two teachers and a church volunteer.
Relatives and others close to the deceased priests - people who worked with them, were cared for by them and in some cases nursed them on their deathbeds - said the accusations are particularly painful.
"There are many victims in this ongoing saga,'' said Alice Wickman, whose uncle, the Rev. Thomas P. Casper, is accused in one lawsuit.
"There are the innocent children who were betrayed by those they trusted,'' she said in a letter to The Courier-Journal. "And there are the innocent, but accused, who can never defend themselves or completely recover from the tarnish of false accusations. And there are the families of both."
Abbie Creed said the accusations against her brother-in-law, the Rev. C. Patrick Creed, are painful given her positive memories of his work.
"He was very highly thought of by his peers as well as his parishioners,'' she said in a letter to the newspaper. "I felt obligated to respond on his behalf."
All of the priests are accused of sexual misconduct in the suits, but the archdiocese is listed as the defendant in each case. The plaintiffs are suing the archdiocese and in some cases a local province of the Conventual Franciscans, alleging that they knew about the abuse and covered it up. The lawsuits do not offer evidence of a cover-up.
Plaintiffs contend they have suffered damage that has outlived the priests they are accusing.
"It's not about them anymore,'' said Janice Marks of Oldham County, one of three women accusing the Rev. John Elder, who died in 1983, of abusing them between 1959 and 1973. "It's about me needing to heal myself. It doesn't matter if he's alive or dead."
Attorney William McMurry, who represents most of the plaintiffs, said he understands the claims are "shocking'' to the deceased priests' families. But is that to say that because "they are dead and cannot defend themselves that it simply didn't happen? That's what juries are for,'' he said.
The cases against the dead priests range widely. Thirty-four people are accusing the Rev. Arthur L. Wood of molesting them in the 1960s and 1970s; four other priests are the targets of only single accusers. One accuser is himself an imprisoned sexabuse convict; he claims the Rev. Joseph Neeson abused him when the priest was nearly 90.
Before this year, Wood, who died in 1983, was accused by only one person who went privately to the archdiocese - and that after Wood's death. Now the only cleric with more accusers is retired priest Louis E. Miller, who is named in 70 suits and two criminal indictments.
Among the dead priests, after Wood, two Conventual Franciscans are the targets of the most accusations - Daniel Emerine, who died in 1986 and is named in six lawsuits alleging abuse in the 1950s and 1960s, and Kevin Cole, who died in 1990 and is accused by five plaintiffs of abuse from 1962 to 1970.
Some Franciscans may have abused children, acknowledged Brother Bob Baxter, spokesman for the Province of Our Lady of Consolation, based in Mount St. Francis, Ind. He did not comment on specific lawsuits but did say the order offers counseling to those who say they were abused by its clerics.
"We're responsible for what that previous generation (of clerics) did,'' Baxter said. "It's awful hard because a lot of these people are deceased. You only have one side of the story and you wonder what happened."
The biggest controversies center on dead priests who have only one or two accusers.
Two women accuse the Rev. Herman Lammers, a longtime director of Catholic Charities who died in 1986 at age 79, of molesting them as girls at an orphanage where he was chaplain between 1955 and 1963. The archdiocese says it has received no other complaints about Lammers.
Several children who lived at the St. Thomas-St. Vincent Home in Anchorage have spoken in Lammers' defense.
"We all cried'' after hearing of the suit, said Karen Snyder of Pewee Valley. "The man had every opportunity in the world to have done anything he wanted to me and my sisters,'' she said. "Never, ever'' did anything bad happen.
The plaintiffs' lawyer, Victor Tackett Jr., did not return a call.
Two other deceased priests are accused by one plaintiff.
John C. Mills of New Albany, Ind., alleges that when he was an altar boy at the Cathedral of the Assumption in downtown Louisville in the early 1960s, he was molested by the pastor, the Rev. Linus Giesler, and the associate pastor, Casper, a future superintendent of Catholic schools.
The archdiocese says it has received no other complaints against Casper, who died in 1991 at age 61, or Giesler, who died in 1999 at 84.
"I didn't come forward to inflict pain on anybody,'' said Mills, who added that he has lost friends who are Catholic since his lawsuit was reported. "My goal is to bring closure to it all. It wasn't about monetary issues."
But Wickman said the accusation against Casper, her uncle, has opened wounds.
"The fact that his memory is now being tarnished is a tremendous burden to my family,'' said Wickman, recalling Casper's pastoral work with groups such as police officers and troubled youths.
Another lawsuit accuses the Rev. C. Patrick Creed of making sexually inappropriate comments during confession to a boy who told him of having been abused by Miller at a summer camp in the 1950s. McMurry filed the suit on behalf of Joseph A. Ball Jr.
Ball does not allege being physically abused by Creed, who died last year at 75. The archdiocese says it has received no other accusations against him.
Before it was amended, the lawsuit misidentified Creed - accusing instead a living priest with a similar name, Thomas Creagh, who is accused in four other suits but who wasn't ordained until 1967.
Creed's sister-in-law, Abbie Creed, said that misidentification illustrated why she supported efforts by Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly to have the names of accused priests sealed until the courts could look at the lawsuits. A Jefferson Circuit Court judge kept the cases open.
Brian Reynolds, chancellor and chief administrative officer of the archdiocese, said accusations against deceased priests are especially difficult.
"I worry about the naming of people who cannot defend themselves and cannot explain their perspective on that time in their lives, who cannot even dispute dates and places and events,'' he said.
"The whole nature of the crime of sexual abuse is difficult to investigate because there's usually no witnesses,'' Reynolds said. "The fact that the accused is deceased even makes it more anguishing."
Reynolds said police investigations have helped clarify allegations against some living priests, but police don't investigate the dead because there is no one to prosecute.
Richard Ausness, a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law, said the lack of a priest's testimony can make it difficult for the archdiocese to defend itself.
But "it can cut either way,'' Ausness said, adding that a priest might admit under oath to having an abuse problem that his superiors were aware of.
"If the priests are alive and are willing to tell the truth, they would be a real source of information for the plaintiffs,'' he said.
Ausness, who teaches about product liability, said there are precedents for suing over the acts of dead people. Plaintiffs suing tobacco- and asbestos-producing companies have claimed their health was damaged through the negligence of executives, some of them dead, he said.
In the Neeson case, Joseph Glenn Eberenz, an inmate at the Kentucky State Reformatory, sued on his own behalf, alleging he was molested at St. Denis Church in Jefferson County in 1954 and 1955.
Neeson, who was in his late 80s then, retired as a pastor at age 90. He died in 1966 at age 99, after 76 years as a priest, and was believed to have been the longest-serving priest in the United States.
Eberenz is serving a sentence for sexual abuse, forgery, robbery and theft.
Reynolds said there are no other accusations against Neeson.
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