Bishop Accountability
  Davenport Diocese Faulted for Response to Abuse Suits

By Shirley Ragsdale
Des Moines Register
November 21, 2003

The Davenport Catholic Diocese is one of the poorest in the nation in responding to lawsuits alleging sexual abuse, a national advocate for victims of priest abuse said Thursday.

"Davenport has been one of the very worst in the way it responds to abuse victims' lawsuits," said David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called SNAP. "They are denying everything. Nowhere else in the country are dioceses asking for court permission to shred documents. . . .

"To the contrary, in the smarter dioceses, those records are being made available voluntarily."

Davenport diocese attorneys are asking a Clinton County district judge's permission to destroy papers used to compile information for a study by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to determine the scope of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

Diocese attorney Chuck Miller said he has asked the judge to help resolve two conflicting directions: one suggesting that diocese officials dispose of documents, the other ordering them not to.

Miller also said the Davenport diocese has not yet submitted a report on the scope of child sexual abuse in its diocese, which was due today.

The survey was designed by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. It is part of the information on priest abuse that is being sought for a national report by the National Review Board, an independent panel appointed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

All 159 U.S. Catholic dioceses have been asked to report the number of incidents, offenders and victims of sexual abuse of minors between 1950 and 2002.

Davenport Bishop William Franklin has not submitted his diocese's survey, said Miller, because the survey suggests that bishops can destroy the work papers they create to complete the survey. The survey does not advocate that church officials destroy any original records involving abuse allegations, he said.

At the same time, a Clinton County district judge had ordered the diocese not to destroy any documents. The judge was ruling in one of seven lawsuits that have been filed against the diocese this year by people who say they were sexually abused by priests.

"We can't do both," Miller said. "So we have elected to obey the court's order and not complete the John Jay study."

Craig Levien, the Davenport attorney for five of the seven plaintiffs, said Thursday that the diocese is not paralyzed by conflicting directions. He suggested it is a tactic by a diocese that has denied "responsibility, liability and any of the facts that occurred."

However, Irene Prior Loftus, chancellor for the Davenport diocese, cites a section in the John Jay survey on confidentiality. It recommends that those compiling information for the report "take particular care to ensure that: Any and all notes and scratch paper that you use to complete the work be destroyed at the end of each day."

Miller contends the notes should be kept confidential and should not be used as evidence at trial.

"Depending on how the documentation comes together, it may contain hearsay admissions from old files because in some cases they would be dealing with people who are dead," Miller said.

SNAP contends that no other dioceses are asking court permission to destroy documents used to comply with the survey.

"The Davenport diocese is attempting to bypass its ethical and moral responsibility, let alone the legal responsibility," said SNAP President Barbara Blaine. "A lot of times, the church's attorneys look for a way to duck out on technicalities."

Davenport is not the only diocese to miss the deadline for the national bishops conference.

Anne Burke, an Illinois appellate judge who is acting chairwoman of the National Review Board, reported last week that the survey results, which were anticipated in December, would not be released until Feb. 27.

Some "foot-dragging" by bishops, poor record keeping, and the difficulty in surveying large dioceses caused delays, Burke said.

Case too old for court, diocese says

THE MOTION: The Davenport diocese has asked a judge to dismiss one of seven lawsuits alleging abuse because the statute of limitations has expired. Diocese lawyer Chuck Miller expects to make the same request in two more cases.

THE LETTER: Miller cites a letter written by plaintiff David Wells and sent to the Rev. James Janssen in 1987. The letter asks the priest to bear the cost of his treatment for depression and other emotional problems linked to "the sexual abuse I was subjected to by you while I was a child."

THE LAW: Under Iowa law, adults may sue over sexual abuse that occurred when they were children, if they sue within four years of remembering or discovering the abuse. Wells' letter would mean his 2003 lawsuit exceeded the statute of limitations.

THE BISHOP: Although the diocese wants to dismiss three lawsuits, Miller said that doesn't mean it is slamming the door on victims. "Bishop Franklin believes that the role of the diocese is to assist the faithful in a pastoral manner and hopes he will be able to continue the relationships even though the abuse victims are suing the Davenport Diocese," Miller said.


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