Archbishop No Stranger to Abuse Cases
South Dakota Suit Came during Chaput's Tenure

By Jean Torkelson
Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO)
September 22, 1997

The Archdiocese of Denver, facing an explosive sex abuse lawsuit against the Rev. Marshall Gourley, is taking its cues from a veteran who has been down this road before.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput helped to deflect a multimillion-dollar sex abuse lawsuit from his former diocese in Rapid City, S.D., two years ago.

After the Rev. William Lambert admitted sexually abusing a young parishioner, Chaput drove to the priest's old parish in rural South Dakota to break the news.

"This is a man who could have walked away and said, 'This isn't my problem,' " said Jeffrey Viken, who successfully defended the diocese against the lawsuit.

Chaput now finds himself faced with a young man making accusations against one of the Denver archdiocese's most beloved priests. Gourley is in seclusion while church officials investigate the allegations.

The archbishop reacted quickly when the accusation was made, saying he holds "zero tolerance" for sexual abuse by priests and adamantly denying that the archdiocese acted improperly.

The archdiocese has asked Gourley's order of priests, the Theatines, to investigate his background.

Parishioners at Our Lady of Guadalupe have rushed to stand behind Gourley, but there was no comparable support for Lambert, an aged parish priest whose sexual misdeeds had occurred in tiny Fairfax, S.D., which straddles the Nebraska border.

To the shock of the far-flung diocese - so traditional that even Planned Parenthood has found it difficult to set up a clinic there - Lambert admitted that he had abused 12-year-old altar boy Bob Koenig.

Koenig was a 49-year-old Sioux Falls, S.D., businessman when the case came to trial.

Under oath, Lambert told of driving the boy to an abandoned farmhouse, restraining him with handcuffs and sexually abusing him. The abuse continued for years, Lambert admitted.

As soon as Lambert admitted his guilt, Chaput removed him from his parish post and arranged for him to receive psychotherapy, Viken said.

Viken said Chaput helped plan legal strategy and uncovered records. He developed a diocese-wide sex abuse policy that drew on expertise of Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Before the case became public, Chaput wrote a letter to be read at Sunday Masses so his 34,000-member flock would know details of the case first.

Chaput offered financial compensation to the victim and called him, offering spiritual help.

On the witness stand, Chaput was forthright, said Viken. He never tried to excuse the priest's guilt, yet expressed his compassion for Lambert as well as Koenig.

The jury absolved the diocese of wrongdoing and found Lambert liable. He was ordered to pay $ 300,000 in damages and has been permanently removed from his duties.

For Viken, Rapid City's former bishop conducted a textbook case on how to approach an ugly reality.


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