Plea Bargain Likely in Church Sex Abuse Case
Cincinnati Deal Would Be First Criminal Conviction of an American Diocese

By Jim DeBrosse and Tom Beyerlein
Dayton Daily News [Cincinnati OH]
Downloaded November 20, 2003

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati and Hamilton County prosecutors are expected to enter a plea agreement this afternoon in which the archdiocese is convicted and punished for alleged criminal activities that prosecutors have been investigating for the past 18 months.

Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Niehaus said Wednesday that both parties have scheduled an informational meeting in his chambers at 3 p.m. today in which he expects to be presented "with a done deal."

"I don't know if it's individuals or an entity (pleading guilty)," Niehaus said. "I don't know what the charges are or what the penalties will be. But (the defendants) are going to have to plead guilty or no contest" to the charges.

Jon Esther, a spokesman for the prosecutor's office, declined to comment on the possibility of a plea agreement, but did say the grand jury in the case "remains on hold."

Archdiocese spokesman Dan Andriacco declined to comment on Wednesday.

Niehaus said the prosecution's decision to bypass the grand jury in the case indicated that no indictment will be handed down. "If you're not indicted, the only way you can go is to enter a guilty plea, and you don't do that unless there's an agreement" between prosecutors and defendants, he said.

If the archdiocese enters a plea, it may be the first time a Catholic diocese in America has pleaded guilty to a crime. Tom Roberts, editor of the National Catholic Reporter newspaper, said he has never heard of a diocese being criminally convicted.

Prosecutor Mike Allen and his office have been battling with archdiocese attorneys since spring 2002 in an effort to determine if the church performed its legal obligation to report allegations of sexual abuse by its priests and employees to police. The archdiocese and its attorneys have refused to turn over some internal documents and consistently have maintained that the archdiocese has acted within the law.

Niehaus noted that, if the archdiocese pleads guilty as an entity, no individual could be punished or sent to jail. Instead, the archdiocese as a whole could be punished by paying restitution to the victims of the alleged abuse.

What's more, Niehaus said, "prosecutors can say, you will cooperate, you will testify" in the prosecution of alleged abusers. "Or you can issue an order against them not to do those things in the future."

Niehaus said he has no choice except to approve the plea agreement "unless it's a manifest injustice, and I can't imagine that the prosecutor or the attorneys for the archdiocese would agree to anything that is a travesty of justice."

Konrad Kircher, a Mason attorney who is representing 67 purported abuse victims in civil lawsuits against the archdiocese and Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, said he believed "it's the first case in the nation where a diocese has been criminally convicted for the handling or mishandling of allegations of sexual abuse by priests. This is extremely significant."

Because Kircher represents alleged victims, Allen will meet with him this afternoon to explain the plea arrangement, Kircher said.

Also on Wednesday, Kircher filed three more civil lawsuits against the archdiocese, alleging they covered up child sexual abuse by priests Lawrence Strittmatter, David Kelley and Thomas Brunner. The lawsuits bring the number of purported victims to 28 for Strittmatter and 37 for Kelley.

Two women alleged in a lawsuit they were abused as schoolgirls by Brunner, then a teacher at Mount Notre Dame High School in Cincinnati. Brunner, now 55, resigned in September as pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Church in Troy in anticipation of being forced out of the ministry due to confirmed abuse charges involving high school girls.

Wednesday's lawsuit also contends Brunner abused girls as a seminarian and deacon in three parishes, including St. Brigid in Xenia, prior to his ordination in 1974.

Kircher called today's expected criminal plea "a step in the right direction. It is some recognition that the judicial system is going to bat for these victims. It's some recognition of these victims and what they've gone through."

He said the archdiocese could use the plea as an opportunity to begin repairing some of the damage wrought by decades of child abuse by some priests.

"They've got the potential now to reconcile with the people, and I hope they use it in the right way," he said. "But I'll believe it when I see it."

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