Archdiocese of St. Louis settles sex abuse lawsuit for $1 million, one of largest ever here

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

June 9, 2023

By Nassim Benchaabane

CHESTERFIELD — The Archdiocese of St. Louis has agreed to pay roughly $1 million to a man who alleged he was sexually abused as a boy by a priest at Ascension Catholic Church in Chesterfield in the 1990s, an attorney for the plaintiff said.

The settlement appears to be the second largest amount the archdiocese is known to have paid one single victim in a sexual abuse claim. Both settlements resulted from lawsuits alleging abuse by the same former priest, Gary P. Wolken, one of the first St. Louis-area clergy to plead guilty to sexual abuse since the crisis shook the Roman Catholic Church two decades ago.

Wolken, now 57 and a registered sex offender, served 12 years in prison from 2003 to 2015 for sexually abusing a Ballwin boy from 1997 to 2000 while babysitting the boy. The archdiocese removed Wolken from ministry in 2002 and in 2004 paid nearly $1.7 million to settle a civil suit alleging church officials could have known about Wolken but failed to intervene.

The settlement reached Wednesday resulted from a 2018 lawsuit that made similar allegations, this time about abuse Wolken allegedly committed years prior to the case that landed him behind bars.

The plaintiff, a John Doe, accused Wolken of sexually abusing him at least four times when he was an altar boy at Ascension, where Wolken was assigned from 1993 to 1997. The abuse began in 1993, when the boy was in fourth grade, and continued through 1995, according to the suit. The plaintiff later recovered repressed memories of the abuse as an adult, starting in 2013, and filed suit in 2018 alleging church officials failed to intervene to protect him.

Rebecca Randles, attorney for the plaintiff, said they stand by the allegations but agreed to settle the case for $1 million this week.

“This is validation, and it appears to us that the archdiocese knows and acknowledged that there was wrongdoing here,” Randles said on Thursday.

“The abuse was horrific and the damages this caused 20 years down the line, while you can heal from it, you can’t reclaim the innocence that was stolen from him from the time he was 10 years old.”

The archdiocese confirmed it settled the lawsuit but declined to provide details of the terms.

“In the Archdiocese of St. Louis, the protection of children and vulnerable adults is our highest priority,” it said in a statement. “We are hopeful that this settlement provides some measure of comfort for the victim and for his family. We continue to pray for all victims of sexual abuse, that they may find comfort and healing. Please keep all those who are exploited in your prayers, especially children and vulnerable adults.”

David Clohessy, with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the settlement’s size signals that the plaintiff had a strong case. A trial was scheduled for September.

“Church officials are terrified of that surfacing,” Clohessy said.

Wolken was ordained in 1993 and assigned to Ascension until 1997. He was then assigned to Our Lady of Lourdes in University City until 1999 and Our Lady of Sorrows in south St. Louis until 2002.

Then the archdiocese suspended Wolken, after learning of the Ballwin boy’s allegations.

Wolken was later convicted of two counts of statutory sodomy and six counts of child molestation, sentenced to 15 years in prison, and defrocked. The boy’s family also filed a civil suit against the archdiocese that resulted in the 2004 payout. Wolken was released on parole in 2015.

In 2019, Wolken was among 64 clergy named by the archdiocese facing substantiated allegations of committing sexual abuse or possessing child pornography.

Wolken, according to a Missouri Highway Patrol sex offender registry, resides in St. Louis and works as a grant writer for Criminal Justice Ministry, a nonprofit that provides rehabilitation services for people newly released from incarceration. The ministry has received partial funding from the Annual Catholic Appeal, a fundraiser by the archdiocese that also supports parishes and independent but affiliated nonprofits and ministries.

The ministry did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

An attorney for Wolken did not return phone calls or an email requesting comment.

Clohessy said the archdiocese should have done more to prevent possible abuse by Wolken after he was released from prison, besides removing him from ministry.

“Men like Wolken win parents’ trust and are able to access and abuse kids because of the clout and prestige they were given by church officials,” he said. “They can’t recruit, teach, house and transfer these guys from parish to parish and then say they kicked him out and he’s now society’s problem.”

The archdiocese, in its statement, emphasized it suspended Wolken in 2002 after learning of the Ballwin boy’s allegations and triggered a law enforcement investigation. Cardinal Raymond Burke, then Archbishop-emeritus of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, had permanently removed Wolken from the clergy by 2007.

“Anyone who wishes to make a report of the sexual abuse of a minor by any priest, deacon or employee of the Archdiocese of St. Louis is encouraged to contact the archdiocesan Office of Child and Youth Protection,” the archdiocese said in the statement Thursday. “Reports should also be made to the Missouri Division of Social Services Child Abuse Hotline at 800-392-3738.”