Bishop Accountability
  Davenport Diocese Most-Sued in Iowa

By Shirley Ragsdale
Des Moines Register
October 31, 2003

The Davenport Diocese has become the most-sued diocese in the state on the issue of priest abuse. The financial effect on the diocese because of the lawsuits is hard to estimate, although one expert doubted it would mean Catholics in the diocese will have to tithe more.

The lawsuit filed Oct. 28 by a Scott County man, identified as John Doe III, names the Reverends James Janssen, Francis Bass and Theodore Anthony Geerts as his abusers. It is the fourth lawsuit naming Janssen, the second naming Bass and the first against Geerts.

The Davenport Diocese acknowledged the lawsuit Thursday, noting that the abuse took place 30 years ago and that the three priests do not have any diocesan duties.

"The diocese is reviewing the complaint," said David Montgomery, a Catholic deacon and diocese spokesman. "It would not be appropriate to discuss this matter while it is in litigation."

Dozens of multimillion-dollar sexual abuse lawsuits are being settled by Catholic dioceses across the nation. The potential liability for dioceses varies, according to experts.

"It depends on the insurance, the severity of the abuse, and the nature of the cases," said Patrick Schiltz, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. "If the cases go to trial, they become morality plays. If mistakes were made by the church, there is a difference in how juries treat the bishops who made the mistakes and the bishop who is two or three bishops removed from the mistakes."

However, it is unlikely that the mission of the church, local parishes or Catholic individuals will suffer if the diocese settles the cases or is found at fault in court, according to Roderick MacLeish Jr., a Boston attorney. MacLeish has collected more than $100 million in compensation for his clients in sexual abuse lawsuits over the past 11 years.

"Parishioners have little worry about the money they put in the collection plate going in the pocket of some avaricious plaintiff's lawyer like me," MacLeish said. "But if the people knew the horror these victims endured, they would be more than happy to make a personal contribution." How badly the diocese itself would be hit depends on how substantial its insurance coverage was at the time the alleged abuse took place.

"And when it comes to paying settlements, philanthropic individuals or organizations often step forward," MacLeish said. "Fraternal organizations raise money. No diocese have ever filed for bankruptcy." The most recent lawsuit alleges that the abuse began in 1964 when Janssen was pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Fort Madison and the plaintiff was under 14.

The lawsuit provides a graphic description of the abuse allegedly suffered by the victim in repeated sexual assaults and group sex with the priests and other boys.

Sexual abuse with Janssen allegedly took place in the priest's office and the gym locker room at St. Joseph School in Fort Madison. Abuse inflicted by Bass allegedly took place in a cabin somewhere on the Mississippi River.

Additionally, the lawsuit alleges Geerts molested the boy and provided alcohol to him and showed him pornographic movies and magazines that were stored in a locked double-door cabinet in the St. Boniface Church rectory in Farmington.

According to the lawsuit, the three priests participated and witnessed the improper sexual activities "while in the presence of each other."


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