Bishop Accountability
  Davenport Diocese Contends 1st Amendment Rights Have Been Violated

By Todd Ruger
Quad-City Times
April 28, 2004

The Catholic Diocese of Davenport has asked the court to eliminate some of the claims against it in one of 14 sexual abuse lawsuits it faces, arguing in part that it had no legal duty to inform parishes of past sexual misconduct by priests.

In a 28-page motion filed as part of a Clinton County case, the diocese contends that there is no legal basis for some claims in the suit because of Iowa law and the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which states that no law should respect a religious establishment or prohibit the free exercise of one.

“That’s not to say a church can operate in violation of the law,” diocese attorney Rand Wonio said Wednesday. “When a court is being asked to comment on how a church is operated, that’s when you start to get into the area of the First Amendment.”

The 14 civil lawsuits filed against the diocese allege sexual abuse of boys by priests 20 to 50 years ago. The plaintiffs seek damages and claim that church leaders failed to take action against the priests even though they were aware of inappropriate sexual contact having taken place.

The case in which the motion was filed, a man identified only as “John Doe,” claims the Rev. James Janssen sexually abused him as a boy.

The motion argues, among other legal issues, that claims of negligence by the diocese should be dismissed because Iowa law does not require it to warn of a priest’s past misconduct and that the U.S. Constitution states that courts cannot evaluate a religious policy or practice.

“Issues of whether the diocese should have hired or retained Janssen, or, in the words of Doe, ordained, defrocked or disciplined him, are issues that this court cannot second-guess under well-established constitutional law,” the motion states.

Quad-City attorney Craig Levien, who represents “John Doe,” called the arguments in the motion “wrong,” saying the lawsuit is about criminal, not church, practices.

“This has nothing to do with religion,” he said.

“The people at the top of the diocese are saying, ‘We can send whatever priest we want to a parish, and we are not responsible for warning the parents and children ... of the bad acts these priests committed in the past.’”

Wonio called that statement a “twist” on a motion seeking only to dismiss claims that do not have a basis in law before the case goes in front of a jury.

The diocese has said it will seek “reasonable settlements” in the cases, but the church has to vigorously defend lawsuits now for the “preservation of the diocese,” he said. The diocese does not know what settlement amounts plaintiffs might demand or how many plaintiffs might file lawsuits, he added.

“We have to assume that we are fighting for the survival of the diocese,” Wonio said.

The diocese has made $377,500 in settlements, paid by insurers, to three people since 1950, according to a report it released in February.

Levien said the motion speaks to the essence of his client’s cases against the diocese: that church leaders knew about the past sexual misdeeds of priests but assigned them to parishes without disclosing that information to children and parents, thereby allowing more abuse to occur.

“I think the Diocese of Davenport is responsible for the wrongdoing that occurred,” he said. “I expect the members of the diocese want (church leaders) to be held responsible.”

An all-day hearing is scheduled June 3 on the motion, as well as other motions seeking to have two of the other lawsuits thrown out on grounds that the claims are too old.

In the meantime, attorneys have scheduled depositions for the priests named as defendants in the lawsuits, the plaintiffs alleging abuse, past vicar general Monsignor Michael Morrisey and Bishop William Franklin.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.