Secrecy Clouds Sullivan Case

The Advocate [Baton Rouge LA]
Downloaded November 19, 2004

The Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge, by settling a sex-abuse lawsuit, tacitly branded the late Bishop Joseph V. Sullivan a sexual predator.

Next school year, the disgraced bishop's name is to be stripped from a parochial school in Baton Rouge.

These developments occur 22 years after the bishop's death and 29 years after he allegedly abused a 17-year-old boy.

Like so much else in the ongoing sex scandals in the Catholic Church, this matter has been shrouded in near-total secrecy through the settlement and sealing of a lawsuit never to be heard in open court.

The public and the church laity know only as much about this case as the plaintiff, the church hierarchy and the courts are willing to reveal, which is almost nothing.

Sullivan was the bishop of Baton Rouge from 1974 until he died in 1982. The abuse allegedly occurred in 1975, Bishop Robert Muenche said.

Muenche said he does not know of any other allegations that implicate Sullivan in sexual abuse.

The diocese will honor the plaintiff's request for anonymity and thus will not disclose how Sullivan and the plaintiff were acquainted, Muenche said.

The lawsuit was filed in April by a man who said his memory of the abuse was repressed until June 2003. No details have been made public, including the identity of the bishop's accuser. The lawsuit was sealed by order of state District Judge Curtis Calloway.

Many unanswered questions come to mind, such as these:

n How much did the Diocese of Baton Rouge pay to settle the case?

n Did the church settle to cut its potential financial losses?

n Did the church settle in the face of overwhelming evidence against Sullivan, or did it act to limit disclosure of details and control damage?

n Was anyone else involved in or aware of this incident?

n Did any church officials know about the alleged abuse before the plaintiff came forward and the lawsuit was filed?

We probably will never know the answers to such questions, but the diocese obviously knows some of them and might have learned others during its inquiry into the allegations.

The Diocese of Baton Rouge reportedly was contacted by the plaintiff's attorney in April, shortly before the lawsuit was filed. The diocese is said to have conducted an investigation during the summer and taken sworn testimony from the plaintiff in September.

The case went to mediation the first week in October, and a conditional resolution was reached, said Charlie Cusimano, attorney for the diocese.

The East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney's Office was informed of the allegation even though Sullivan is dead, Muenche said.

Under diocese protocol, the claim was presented to the diocese's Independent Review Board, composed of experts in the child-care, therapy, health and legal professions.

The board concluded the claim was "serious and deserving of careful attention," a diocese statement said.

Cusimano said the plaintiff's attorney didn't force the diocese or its insurer to file an answer to the lawsuit because the diocese cooperated.

Some observers might conclude that church officials have displayed great integrity in their revelations about this case. Some might see the diocese's actions as a grave injustice to Sullivan. Still others might think they don't have enough facts to draw any conclusions about the actions of the diocese, which knows more than it is telling.

We imagine the presumption is widespread that the church would not have taken such damning action regarding a former bishop if the evidence against Sullivan were not overwhelming.

The truth is, however, that all the rest of us really know is that, rightly or wrongly, Sullivan's name and memory have been permanently stained.

The whole truth presumably is known only to the late bishop, the unnamed plaintiff and God.


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