Tulsa Jury Clears Priest, Rejects His Slander Suit

By Larry Levy
The Oklahoman [Tulsa OK]
October 19, 2004

TULSA - A Catholic priest accused of child molestation alleged to have occurred 25 years ago was cleared Monday by a Tulsa District Court jury. The panel also found that he was not slandered or libeled by his accusers.

The jury of eight women and four men, after hearing two lawsuits simultaneously, deliberated two hours before finding the Rev. Paul Eichhoff had not committed battery -- the legal term for the alleged abuse in the case -- in 1979 on Kelly Kirk, then 10.

At the same time, jurors split, 11 to 1, on whether Kelly Kirk, now 35, or his father, Gordon Kirk, had committed either slander or libel in reporting the allegation to medical professionals, counselors, police or investigators for the Catholic Diocese of Tulsa.

The verdicts carried no recommendation for anyone to pay damages.

Eichhoff, 59, now is pastor of St. Cecilia Church in Claremore. He said the verdict returned "my reputation, my name," which was what he really sought, rather than a monetary verdict. His legal bills exceeded $300,000 before the trial began, he said.

"I'm grateful for the many people who prayed for me," he said.

His attorney, Kenneth Brune, termed the verdict on the molestation accusation "a complete vindication."

The Kirks did not discuss the case publicly after the verdict.

Their attorney, W.R. Cathcart, said, "This is kind of an emotional moment for them. They certainly understand that when you have a decision as to what happened 25 years ago, when you have a one-on-one, he-said he-said with conflicting evidence, it's difficult to prevail by a preponderance of the evidence."

For two years, the family has waited for the church to reach out to them, and "the church never did," Cathcart said.

The slander-libel suit was initiated by Eichhoff on Aug. 2, 2002, shortly after the Kirks reported the alleged molestation to the church and after the priest was put on administrative leave. Kelly Kirk responded with a countersuit alleging abuse.

An investigation by the diocese resulted in Eichhoff being reinstated to his pastoral duties in November 2002.

The younger Kirk claimed he and another boy were molested by Eichhoff while attending St. Mary's Grade School in Tulsa. He said he did not recall the incident until 2000 and told his parents about it two years later.

Eichhoff was one of three current or former Tulsa diocese priests accused of abuse in the summer of 2002. Police investigated, but prosecutors said they would not file any charges because of the five-year statute of limitations on sexual abuse crimes.

Contributing: The Associated Press


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