The Catholic Church Struggles with Suits over Sexual Abuse
While It Pledges Compassion, Its Lawyers Play Rough Defending Lapsed Priests
Suing Parents for Negligence
By Milo Geyelin
Wall Street Journal
November 24, 1993
When Edward Morris sued the Philadelphia Catholic archdiocese alleging eight years of sexual abuse by his childhood priest, lawyers for the church had a swift answer. They countersued Mr. Morris's parents—blaming them for failing to discover their son's relationship with an alleged "child abuser."
When Timothy D. Martinez sued the archdiocese of Santa Fe over alleged abuse by a convicted pedophile priest there, church lawyers took a similar tack. They sent private investigators swarming through Mr. Martinez's past, asking former friends if he was homosexual.
And during a grueling deposition last year—with the ex-priest sitting silently across a conference table—church lawyers not only demanded details of Mr. Martinez's sex life but also asked: "When [the priest] touched you, did you enjoy it?"
Says the 30-year-old Mr. Martinez, "I felt they were trying to wear me down, like they were going to break me."
Public Posture, Private Deeds
For parishioners caught up in a web of sexual abuse by rogue priests, U.S. Catholic Church leaders have an unequivocal public posture: "It's long since time to get on our knees, to beat our breasts, to ask God's mercy...," Cardinal John O'Connor of New York said in an open letter last July. "Justice, compassion and charity comprise the foundation of our policy."
Yet many victims have found this pledge stops at the courthouse door. Worried about crippling damage awards and their effect on church programs, and concerned about false allegations, the church has adopted bruising, bare-knuckle tactics more common to corporate defenses in high-stakes personal-injury suits.
The church, of course, has every right to defend itself, and some would argue that hardball tactics are justified —or at least understandable—in cases of unproven sexual-abuse allegations. And many of the defendants [sic], with lawyers working on a contingent-fee basis, are asking for millions of dollars in damages, including punitive damages. But a close look at numerous suits brought by alleged victims shows scorched-earth defense tactics common even in cases where the priests have been criminally convicted.
"There's a difference between exercising legal rights and prerogatives in lawsuits and intentionally re-victimizing victims by repudiations, rebukes and attacks," says Jeffrey Anderson, a plaintiff's lawyer in St. Paul, Minn. He is handling more than 225 suits against priests accused of molesting children.
Battles of Attrition
The hardball attitude is clear in a number of cases in upstate New York involving Cardinal O'Connor's own archdiocese. In one, the Rev. Edward A. Pipala of Goshen was accused by New York state authorities of operating a secret club for 50 young boys and teenagers, identifying members by number and taking them for seaside excursions to New Jersey and Cape Cod to drink, watch X-rated movies and engage in sex. He pleaded guilty last summer in state and federal courts in New York to a variety of charges including sodomy and sexual abuse.
But the archdiocese—represented by a crack litigation team at Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett, one of New York's premier corporate-law firms—has denied all liability, rejected settlement discussions and inundated plaintiffs' lawyers with faxed demands for pretrial information. Among the requests: the precise description of what the children drank, where or with whom they sat or stood when they drank it.
The archdiocese is responding aggressively to allegations that the Rev. Daniel A. Calabresri of Poughkeepsie sodomized a teenage boy in a parish rectory last year after getting him drunk on beer and vodka. Father Calabrese pleaded guilty to criminal charges of sodomy in state court in Poughkeepsie. In response to a civil suit filed by the boy's family earlier this year in state court there, the archdiocese is blaming the youth, saying he "willingly consented."
The archdiocese says such tactics are painful but necessary to shield against huge damage awards that could force cutbacks in charitable and educational services. Cardinal O'Connor, in his role of bishop of his diocese, has a responsibility to defend it, "especially in lawsuits that might seek to teach the church a lesson or injure the church," says his spokesman, Joseph Zwilling.
Church officials nationwide share this view and are acting accordingly. On the one hand, they are expressing sympathy for victims, offering counseling and overhauling outdated procedures for investigating abuse. Recently, for example, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops sought Vatican permission to strengthen the church's hand in defrocking priests who have committed abuse. And earlier, the conference began work on a national action plan for investigating abuse allegations and removing offenders. Yet, church leaders say they can't turn the other cheek when it comes to damage suits.
"Just because a lawsuit is filed, it doesn't mean the church should open up a checkbook and say, 'Take what you want,'" says Mark Chopko, general counsel for the Catholic conference, the ecclesiastical body for the 188 independent U.S. dioceses. Though they keep no centralized records, church officials estimate damage awards and settlement. payments so far have topped $60 million. Outsiders place the amount much higher.
The church argues, of course, that one justification of a vigorous defense is that accusations may be false. That's the position the Catholic conference took after Chicago's Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was named in a lawsuit two weeks ago accusing him of sexual abuse. "I believe him when he goes before his people and the whole country to say he is innocent," said Bishop John T. Kinney of North Dakota.
"Cardinal Bernardin's archdiocese is taking the same position in two lawsuits accusing one of his priests, the Rev. Robert Lutz, of sexually abusing two young boys. Father Lutz is pastor of a parochial grade school in the affluent Chicago suburb of Northbrook, Ill. "This is a justice issue," says John O'Malley, general counsel to the Chicago archdiocese. "The tragedy here would be not to defend this man because the media and a lot of people have decided he did something wrong."
Yet, increasingly, insurance issues also play a role in the church's attitude. The nation's Catholic dioceses all carry general liability policies, and numerous sexual-abuse payouts to date have come from insurers. More and more, however, insurance carriers are refusing to defend dioceses or provide coverage, contending sexual abuse is an intentional act and not insurable under general liability policies. That is especially true in cases where dioceses were aware of complaints of sexual abuse by priests but withheld such information from .insurers.
"We take the position that you could have expected they were going to harm another child," says Richard F. Johnson, a lawyer for Lloyd's of London. It is one of the carriers for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, which [h]as been rocked by a slew of sexual-abuse lawsuits. A dozen carriers there have sued seeking to void their obligation to defend the archdiocese or pay damage claims in 31 sexual-abuse complaints involving 39 plaintiffs now pending before New Mexico courts.
And even in cases where insurance companies provide coverage, some have balked at settlements—and resorted to countersuits and attacks against plaintiffs as a way of defeating or discouraging claims. Church officials sometimes contend they have little say in how insurance-company lawyers conduct such litigation, and point to Mr. Morris's case as an example.
In his lawsuit, filed in 1989, Mr. Morris claims that his family priest, the Rev. Terrance Pinkowski, abused him over an eight-year span. A Franciscan friar, Father Pinkowski was Mr. Morris's high-school religion teacher and spiritual guide at a time when Mr. Morris was considering becoming a priest. According to the suit, filed in the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia, Father Pinkowski convinced Mr. Morris that sexual relations were a form of therapy necessary for his spiritual growth in preparation for ordination.
Mr. Morris, now 31 years old and the owner of a Philadelphia import-export business, brought the allegations long after the alleged abuse. The catalyst was his 1988 marriage—and the family priest's conspicuous absence from the guest list. His parents "wanted to know why this man wasn't coming to my wedding," Mr. Morris says.
Upon filing his lawsuit, however, the church's defense lawyer—hired by the insurance carrier—quickly countersued his parents, claiming negligence on their part. The tactic left Mr. Morris in shock. "You go toward them and you expect compassion and understanding and a degree of healing and you're treated like you're taking on a Fortune 500 company,"
While church officials say they protested the strategy but had no control over it, the lawyer who handled the case disputes that. The archdiocese, as the policyholder, was the client "for professional and ethical purposes" and retained final say on strategy, says lawyer Bruce McCollough. "Nobody second guessed it."
Mr. Morris's suit dragged on for four years and was settled out of court last Augtust under a confidentiality agreement barring disclosure of the terms. (Father Pinkowski died two years ago.)
Mr. Martinez found he got similar treatment in Santa Fe. The New Mexico archdiocese has become a magnet for sexual-abuse claims against clergy because one of the few treatment centers for pedophile priests—the Servants of the P[a]raclete—is located in nearby Jemez Springs. Though area parents were unaware of the practice, priests sent there for treatment were frequently reassigned to local parishes and allowed unsupervised contact with children.
Some alleged victims maintain that their complaints to former Santa Fe Archbishop Robert Sanchez went unheeded because he, himself, was engaging in sexual misconduct. Last March he abruptly resigned after three women accused him of having sexual relations with them when they were teenagers. Two weeks ago, the Servants of the P[a]raclete, which is independent of the archdiocese, agreed to pay about $8 million in damages to 25 victims of a priest it treated and released.
Now, facing a potentially huge, uninsured liability, the archdiocese is leaning on its lawyers to hold down damage awards while mounting a furious legal battle to force its insurers to pay legal costs and provide coverage.
Caught in the middle are plaintiffs like Mr. Martinez, an Albuquerque electronics technician for Martin Marietta Corp. and one of 12 people who contend they were abused as children and teenagers by Jason Sigler, a former priest. Mr. Sigler, according to state-court pleadings, had been reassigned to a small parish near Albuquerque after treatment for pedophilia at the Servants of the P[a]raclete.
There he befriended Mr. Martinez and his family—and, court records say, initiated an eight-year sexual relationship with Mr. Martinez, who was 13 at the time. "A lot of people have a hard time understanding what an authority figure a priest is," says Mr. Martinez, who claims the alleged abuse has left him depressed and with an abiding hatred for authority.
Mr. Sigler, no longer a priest, pleaded guilty in 1983 in a state court in Albuquerque to sexual molestation involving two minors; they also have sued him. Mr. Sigler has refused to testify in his own defense, citing his Fifth Amendment guarantee against self-incrimination; he now works as a paralegal for his lawyer.
The archdiocese nonetheless is preparing an all-out defense aimed squarely at discrediting Mr. Martinez. Private investigators have gone to great lengths to delve into his personal life, tracking down his college roommates, former girlfriends and even the janitor of the church he attended in Albuquerque as a youth. Archdiocese lawyers say they need such information to estimate liability and damages, noting the local church's treasury isn't bottomless.
"Everyone wants the diocese to roll over and play dead. We get hammered and get kicked in the teeth, and its not going to be that way any more," says the Rev. Ron Wolf, chancellor of the archdiocese.
Church lawyers blame plaintiffs' lawyers for trying their cases in the press and making unreasonable settlement demands. On Monday, an offer by Mr. Martinez to settle for $1.25 million was rejected.
Still, some can't get past the irony of the church's iron-fisted response to such lawsuits. Cardinal Bernardin's Chicago archdiocese is credited with developing the nation's strongest program for investigating abuse and removing problem priests and providing counseling to victims. This nonetheless hasn't stopped the archdiocese from waging legal war against those who have filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court against Father Lutz.
The church has financed a countersuit alleging invasion of privacy and defamation against the parents of one plaintiff; the parents took their case to the media after state prosecutors declined to press criminal charges against Father Lutz.
Private detectives hired by the Chicago law firm Sidley & Austin have sifted through the family's trash, staked out their home and telephoned neighbors in search of incriminating information. At least in this case, high-powered lawyering his raised some potentially valid defense points. According to depositions in the case, the accuser has a history of fabricating stories and recanted his accusations when questioned by a family psychologist.
Whatever their merits, counterattacks do often work. Consider the four-year battle waged by the Archdiocese of Altoona-Johnstown in Western Pennsylvania against a lawsuit brought by a former church member, now in his 20s. The plaintiff alleged that, beginning at age nine, he was sexually abused for seven years by the Rev. Francis E. Luddy, the family's priest and his godfather. Father Luddy has admitted to committing sexual acts with the plaintiff's older brother, according to records in a separate suit. (Those records are now under court seal, though they were briefly made public.) Since 1987, the priest has been under treatment at Servants of the P[a]raclete.
But in response to the suit, the Altoona-Johnstown diocese denied that any abuse had occurred and argued that if any did the church wasn't legally at fault. Among the defenses: If sex did take place, the plaintiff consented to it and was thus contributorily negligent. In the interim, lawyers for the diocese fought a lengthy battle to keep court proceedings closed while stalling efforts by the plaintiffs to gain access to Father Luddy's personnel file. The issue was still pending in August 1992 when the plaintiff, whose name has never been publicized, gave up and dropped his claim.
The diocese declines comment, citing a gag order on the still-pending case against Father Luddy filed by the plaintiff's brother. Says the man's lawyer, Richard Serbin, of Altoona: "He was at a point where he had just had enough."
For the Rev. Andrew M. Greeley, a Catholic priest and popular Chicago
novelist who has been in the .forefront of victims'-rights efforts, such
cases undermine the credibility of the church's reform efforts. If the
Church wins, he says, other victims will be discouraged from coming forward.
"They'll beat you into the ground with their money," Father
Greeley says. But "even if the church wins, it loses."
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