Problem Priests: Settling and Spinning

Post Dispatch [St. Louis MO]
Downloaded September 7, 2004

LAWYERS FOR THE ARCHDIOCESE of St. Louis and 18 people claiming to have been victims of sexual abuse by five priests last week announced that financial agreements had been reached that would result in the 18 lawsuits being dropped.

Usually, such agreements are called "settlements," but archdiocesan lawyer Edward Goldenhersh objected to that terminology as "wordsmithing." He told Post-Dispatch reporter Tim Townsend, "They brought claims and I can beat them in court, and they know that."

Thus, even when it finally does the right thing, the archdiocese has to pour salt on the wound.

Children often repress incidents of childhood abuse and only seek justice when they realize how dramatically the abuse has altered their lives. By then, statutes of limitations usually have expired.

The archdiocese, which cites higher moral laws or canon (church) law when civil law is against it - for example, the question of who owns St. Stanislaus Kostka Church's $9 million in assets - is content with civil law in this case.

But the church should have higher moral standards than, say, a supermarket sued by a slip-and-fall artist. When people are hurt by its priests, the church should immediately offer solace and counseling, not go to the mat with hardball defense lawyers.

The 18 settlements (apologies to Mr. Goldenhersh) announced last week called for a total of $2 million in cash payments and reimbursements. The amounts paid to each victim were not disclosed.

The church also agreed to noneconomic considerations. It agreed to provide "safe touch" education to children, give awareness education to its employees, post the state child abuse hot-line telephone number in archdiocesan workplaces and, in a few cases, issue letters of apology.

"Most of our people were disappointed in the noneconomic stuff," said victims' advocate David Clohessy. "A lot of victims want to think that other kids will be safer because of their experiences."

Mr. Clohessy said the archdiocese is aware of some 30 allegations of abuse. Lawsuits have been filed in some of those cases; in others, the internal church review process is under way.

Four of the five priests involved in the 18 settlements have either been removed from the priesthood, resigned or are in jail. The fifth, the Rev. Alexander Anderson, pastor of Most Sacred Heart Church in Eureka, has continued to deny the allegations against him. In what it called an "act of kindness," the church reimbursed his accuser $22,500 for counseling costs.

Call them "acts of kindness" or "settlements," the archdiocese should move quickly to get the remaining cases behind it and do everything possible to make sure no other child gets hurt. Doing it the right way is more important than spinning it the right way.


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