Suit Claims Molestation by Priest

By Toni Heinzl
Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Texas)
May 8, 2001

FORT WORTH - A Tarrant County man, now in his early 20s, has filed a lawsuit against a private Roman Catholic boarding school in northwestern Kansas, saying he was sexually molested by a priest who taught there.

The lawsuit against Thomas More Prep-Marian High Inc. of Hays, Kan., was filed in March in a state District Court in Fort Worth, but a motion by the school to have it moved to federal court is pending. Criminal charges have also been filed.

The case may draw some additional attention because the allegations are based on recovered memories of events years after they allegedly occurred at the prep school.

According to the suit, the young man spontaneously recovered the memory of the sexual molestation in December 1999, five years after he left the school. He then alerted Kansas authorities, the suit says.

The Rev. Ronald Gilardi, 53, was charged June 22 with criminal sodomy, indecent liberties with a child and other sexual offenses, said Tom Drees, the prosecutor in Ellis County, Kan.

Jean Ross, the school's president, declined to comment Monday, except to say, "We are in litigation, and I don't think it's appropriate to comment."

Gilardi's defense attorney, Glenn Braun, declined to comment.

Gilardi faces up to 18 years in prison if convicted. A court hearing to determine whether he should stand trial is scheduled for Friday

After his arrest, Gilardi left the school and was sent to a residential treatment center in Dittmer, Mo., about 40 miles southwest of St. Louis, last summer. Gilardi did not return messages left for him at the treatment center.

The civil suit, seeking unspecified damages, says that school officials engaged in deceptive trade practices in violation of Texas law when they tried to persuade the boy's parents to enroll their son.

The parents were lured by the promise the school would provide an "ideal Christian environment," a nurturing family atmosphere and "teachers who were willing to go the extra mile," the suit says.

In fall 1993, the boy, then 14, enrolled at the school as a boarding student.

Shortly after joining the school, the boy received inappropriate attention from Gilardi, the suit says.

"Father Gilardi enticed [ the boy] with tobacco and alcohol, and invited him into faculty areas that were ostensibly off-limits to students," the suit says. "Making use of empty classrooms and school videotape equipment, Father Gilardi began exposing [ the boy] to pornographic materials. Shortly thereafter, Father Gilardi began sexually abusing [the boy] ."

The suit says the school was negligent. It also claims that the school broke its contract with the plaintiffs to provide a safe and nurturing environment. The alleged abuse happened over 14 months, the suit says, until the boy dropped out.

The Star-Telegram is not publishing the young man's name because it does not identify victims of sexual assault.

Drees said Gilardi does not have a prior criminal history. No other complaints have been brought against the priest.

"People are reluctant to come forward in sex offense cases, particularly child victims," Drees said.

Because no physical evidence exists, the case boils down to the accuser's credibility, Drees said.

"I'm comfortable with the facts scenario," he said.

But the use of recovered memories of painful past events, particularly of childhood sexual abuse, is a contentious subject. Although several successful prosecutions have relied on recovered memories, many other cases have been dropped, dismissed or disproved.

One high-profile case involved allegations against a revered church leader, the late Cardinal Joseph Louis Bernardin of Chicago. In 1993, a gay man dying of AIDS, Steven Cook, accused Bernardin of abusing him in the 1970s when Bernardin served as archbishop in Cincinnati and Cook was in a pre-seminary program.

Months later, Cook recanted, saying those hypnosis-induced memories were false. The cardinal and his accuser later met and prayed together.

It's uncertain which court will handle the civil lawsuit against Thomas More Prep-Marian High School.

The plaintiffs' attorney, Stephen Howell of Fort Worth, declined to comment.

The school's attorney, Lynn Fielder of Dallas, said he believed that the suit should have been filed in Kansas.

Thomas More Prep-Marian High School is a private Catholic school that is run as a corporation, Fielder said.

If the case is transferred to federal court, Fielder said he would ask U.S. District Judge John McBryde in Fort Worth to hold that Texas does not have jurisdiction. If McBryde agrees with the school's argument, the judge can dismiss the suit for lack of jurisdiction, and the plaintiffs can refile in Kansas courts, Fielder said.

That will depend on whether McBryde agrees with the plaintiffs' claim that the school solicited in Texas to convince Texas parents to enroll their children at the Kansas school.

Fielder argues that the school does not do business in Texas, nor does it target Texans in recruiting students.


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