Diocese of Scranton Agrees to Settle Sex Abuse Lawsuit

By Chris Birk
The Citizens Voice [Scranton PA]
May 10, 2005

The Diocese of Scranton will pay more than half of a $380,000 settlement to end a sexual abuse lawsuit brought by a former St. Gregory's Academy student, and Bishop Joseph F. Martino will offer a personal apology, according to attorneys for the parties.

The bishop's gesture, while not a written stipulation of the settlement, stands as "a factor in the overall resolution of the claim," said Carbondale Attorney Harry T. Coleman, who alongside Washington-state Attorney James Bendell represented the young man who filed suit against two Society of St. John priests.

In the March 2002 civil suit, the young man, identified as John Doe, accused the Revs. Carlos Urrutigoity and Eric Ensey of molestation, beginning on his 17th birthday in May 1998. John Doe, now in his early 20s, lives in North Carolina.

"They're happy to bring this to an end, to have Bishop Martino make that gesture of good will was extremely well received by them," Coleman said of Doe's family, adding that the diocese volunteered to offer an apology. "To this family, who are devout Catholics, that is more important than any monetary amount."

Whether Bishop Martino would travel to North Carolina remained undetermined Friday.

The U.S. District Court lawsuit also named the Diocese of Scranton, the Most Rev. James C. Timlin, former diocesan bishop, and others for failing to scrutinize the priests or adequately monitor their activities after allegations about them were initially brought to the diocese's attention.

The defendants will collectively pay $380,000 to the victim, with $200,000 coming from the diocese. The Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, which operated the academy in Elmhurst, will pay $125,000, while the Society of St. John pays the remaining $55,000.

Trial Judge John E. Jones III ordered the case dismissed Thursday without prejudice.

Although Doe's real name is disclosed in the deposition, it is the policy of the Times-Shamrock newspapers not to identify victims of alleged sexual assault.

Meanwhile, the Society of St. John sold its 1,000-acre property in Pike County on Friday, repaying a $2.65 million loan guaranteed by the diocese, according to a diocesan news release.

Settlement made sense

Some of the settlement will be used to purchase annuities that could push its total worth to $455,550, said Coleman.

"In view of the serious claims made by the young person and in light of the statements by the witnesses who supported his claim, it was determined that the just decision was to reach a settlement that will assist the victim and his family as they attempt to heal," Bishop Martino said in a written statement provided by the Diocese of Scranton.

Bendell went a step further, calling the hefty settlement "an admission of wrongdoing."

"When we're talking about a settlement of over $400,000, it's an admission," he said.

The society's chunk has already been paid, said Attorney Sal Cognetti, who represented the two priests. Weighing the costs and uncertainty of trial, he said the settlement made economic sense.

"The priests have emphatically denied and continue to deny the allegations," said Cognetti. "They have never admitted to any improper contact. In any case, there's an economic consideration."

Efforts to reach the Rev. Daniel Fullerton, chancellor general of the Society of St. John, were unsuccessful Friday.

Society settles loan

Founded by former members of the Society of St. Pius X, the Society of St. John found a home in the diocese in 1997. A year later, in May 1998, Bishop Timlin granted the group status as a public association of the faithful.

After their arrival, members took up residence at St. Gregory's, where they lived until relocating to Shohola in 1999.

At the time the alleged assaults took place, the Rev. Ensey was providing Doe with "spiritual guidance," according to court documents. The Rev. Urrutigoity is a founder and former superior general of the society.

Incidents would later include anal and oral sex with the Rev. Ensey during a November 1998 visit to the home of the priest's parents in California, and fondling by the Rev. Urrutigoity at Shohola in fall 2000, according to the complaint.

In August 2003, the diocese guaranteed the $2.65 million loan for the society, which had sought to create a "city on a hill" at the Pike County property. About a year later, citing financial burdens and the ongoing sexual abuse lawsuit, Bishop Martino severed diocesan ties with the embattled organization through a formal decree of suppression.

The property sale Friday repaid that loan in full.

"It is unfortunate that this group of priests brought so much scandal and consternation to the priests and laity of the diocese," Bishop Martino said in Friday's written statement. "It is now time to move forward and put the society behind us."

But the suppression battle may linger. The Society of St. John has appealed the decree to the Vatican, declaring "the decision is a misinformed one and that there are no grounds to justify it."

Doe has agreed to cooperate on behalf of the diocese should the society's appeal eventually require canonical hearings or testimony, said Coleman.

"He's committed to doing whatever he can to make sure the suppression stays enforced," said Bendell. "This kid, he's dedicated to the truth."