Davenport Diocese One of the Worst
By Todd Ruger
An expert witness involved in more than 700 cases of sexual abuse by clergy across America and Europe ranks cases filed against the Rev. James Janssen and the Catholic Diocese of Davenport as the third-worst among those he has reviewed in terms of secrecy.
“I would put it up with some of the clearest documented examples of concealment of evidence and the failure to reach out in any way to the victims,” the Rev. Tom Doyle testified Thursday in Scott County District Court.
Doyle, a Dominican priest and canon law expert who previously worked at the Vatican’s embassy in Washington, D.C., testified for the plaintiffs as part of arguments heard by District Judge C.H. Pelton on motions filed by the diocese to dismiss two lawsuits.
Pelton said he will issue a written decision on the motions at a later date.
The lawsuits by James Wells and a man identified only as John Doe III allege sexual abuse by two priests more than 30 years ago.
But attorneys for the diocese and the two priests accused in the cases — Janssen and the Rev. Francis Bass — said the only thing that matters in the court of law is that the plaintiffs failed to file their lawsuits before the statute of limitations expired.
Over time, evidence is lost and memories fade, making it impossible for the diocese to defend itself, diocese attorney Rand Wonio said.
“That’s why they have the statute of limitations,” he told the judge after running down a list of names of deceased bishops and priests whose testimony he would need to defend the case. “That’s why the diocese can’t get a fair trial here.”
Diocese attorney Robert McMonagle called an argument by the plaintiffs that they could not file their lawsuits sooner because the diocese concealed evidence a “red herring.”
“They could have drafted identical petitions years before 2003,” he said, since letters from the plaintiffs to the diocese show they already knew about their injuries and their ability to file a lawsuit before the diocese turned over church documents in February.
‘One of the Cruelest Arguments’
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Craig Levien, called that “one of the cruelest arguments.”
Levien said the lawsuits should be allowed to continue because mental illness and concealment of evidence by the diocese prevented his clients from filing.
“(The defendants are) trying to benefit from the mental illness these defendants caused by saying our clients waited too long,” he added. “The mental illness they caused is what has prevented these clients from mitigating their legal rights, and that’s the cruelty of the argument.”
A report from Bishop William Franklin in February marked the first time the Davenport Diocese chose to tell parishioners and the public at large that pedophiles had been practicing priestly duties within the diocese for more than 50 years, Levien said.
Earlier this month, a district judge in Lee County, Iowa, denied a similar attempt by the diocese to dismiss a sexual abuse lawsuit filed in that county, saying that statute-of-limitations issues would be best decided by a jury.
Janssen and other priests have denied in court records all accusations of sexual abuse.
Bishop Defends Legal Strategy
Franklin responded to “concerns by some about the manner in which the Diocese of Davenport is defending itself in several lawsuits concerning sexual abuse by clergy” in a letter published in Thursday’s edition of The Catholic Messenger, the diocesan newspaper.
“The reason for statutes of limitations is fairness,” he wrote. “The financial assets of the diocese are limited, and large damage payments will jeopardize the current good works of the church.”
Franklin also said he has constantly urged Levien to mediate all of the claims.
The diocese received a letter from Levien stating a willingness to mediate, but the diocese must fully defend itself while exploring prospects for mediation, the bishop added.
No monetary amounts have been stated so far, but plaintiffs in Lee County cases who have responded are seeking millions of dollars in damages, Franklin said.
“The diocese must resist huge award payments to a few that will restrict the diocese from providing service to others,” he said. “The diocese believes that asking current members of the church to pay large damage awards for misconduct that occurred decades ago is unfair.”
During his arguments Thursday, Wonio turned and apologized to the courtroom audience, which included several men who have filed some of the other 14 sexual abuse lawsuits pending against the diocese. Levien is the attorney for the majority of those plaintiffs.
“The diocese has expressed its sorrow about this, and means it,” Wonio said. “The diocese has a duty of stewardship to the entire diocese to keep itself from bankruptcy from large money judgments.”
He also said insurance coverage for the diocese during the time of the alleged sexual abuse is unclear.
The diocese has hired an “insurance archeologist” to go through old records and try to piece together the extent to which insurance coverage will be available for damage awards, he added.
Levien said he had not reviewed the contents of the bishop’s letter,
but pointed out that the diocese continues to try to dismiss the lawsuits.
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