47 File Catholic Sex-Abuse Suits
Judge in Jefferson Denied Class Action
By Peter Smith
The Courier-Journal [Kentucky]
October 23, 2005
Dozens of plaintiffs have refiled claims in the past week alleging they were sexually abused at Catholic orphanages and schools, and they are again seeking class-action status for their lawsuits.
The filings came after a Jefferson Circuit judge rejected a similar appeal for class-action status last month in a lawsuit filed against the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Louisville and its Catholic Charities agency.
Judge Denise Clayton ruled that the plaintiffs' claims did not fit the criteria for a class-action suit, which is used when people have similar claims of injury against the same institution.
"The plaintiffs have claims of varying degrees against several different alleged perpetrators that span from the 1930s to the 1970s," Clayton wrote in her Sept. 28 ruling. "There is a wide variance in the degree of injury alleged."
In another ruling issued the same day, Clayton ruled that each plaintiff had to file a separate lawsuit. Since a wave of orphanage-related litigation began last year, most of the plaintiffs had added their name to a master complaint contained in a single lawsuit.
As a result, attorneys have filed 47 new lawsuits since last week against the nuns and the archdiocese. Combined with a handful of cases that had already been filed individually, 51 plaintiffs now have separate pending lawsuits.
Elizabeth Mendel, attorney for the Sisters of Charity, a Nelson County-based order of nuns, said it makes sense to handle the cases separately.
"It reduces the burden on one judge, and because the cases are so individualized, they really need to be handled separately," she said.
William McMurry, the attorney representing most of the plaintiffs, criticized Clayton's decision.
He said it would slow the cases down, now that they are being "scattered throughout the courthouse" in the dockets of 13 judges.
McMurry is persisting in trying to keep at least some aspects of the cases together.
He petitioned Chief Judge James M. Shake on Monday to consolidate the cases in his court to deal with questions about evidence-gathering and law that are common to all the claims.
Shake played the same role in overseeing an earlier set of 243 sexual-abuse lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Louisville. Those cases were settled in 2003 for $25.7 million.
Even though Clayton denied the class-action status, McMurry hasn't given up on the idea.
In each of the newly filed cases, he also is seeking class-action status, hoping at least one of the other 12 judges hearing the cases agrees. He said this would reserve the right to pursue a class-action settlement even if he ultimately chose not to go that route.
Both the archdiocese and the Sisters of Charity had opposed the original class-action bid.
McMurry criticized the archdiocese in particular for its stance, noting that it agreed to a similar arrangement in earlier litigation.
McMurry represented the 243 plaintiffs who settled in 2003 after Shake designated them as a class for purposes of negotiating a settlement.
McMurry noted that they were considered a single class even though their allegations also included different alleged abusers and different levels of abuse over several decades. A court-appointed master commissioner later distributed varying amounts of money to plaintiffs based on the severity of abuse.
While that case allowed only the 243 plaintiffs into the class, the type of class action McMurry is now seeking would be different. It would allow an unknown number of other victims to come forward after a settlement -- a format similar to one used in an agreement settling lawsuits by victims against the Diocese of Covington in Kentucky.
The archdiocese declined to comment because it is involved in the pending litigation, said spokeswoman Cecelia Price.
Mendel said she believed the process of gathering evidence and testimony would continue without much delay. She said that by the end of the year, she hoped to file motions asking the judges to dismiss the cases because they were filed too long after the expiration of the statute of limitations, which governs the period that a plaintiff can wait to file suit.
Asked if there are any settlement discussions, Mendel said, "My clients are not interested in settling, because they don't believe they did anything wrong."
At the same time, spokeswoman Diane Curtis of the Sisters of Charity added that the order would make "every effort to try to seek the truth."
The plaintiffs in the current lawsuits allege they were molested by a priest, several nuns and two lay people at Catholic orphanages and schools.
The orphanages were St. Vincent in Louisville and St. Thomas in Anchorage, which later became the merged St. Thomas-St. Vincent Orphanage.
The Sisters of Charity and Catholic Charities both had a role in staffing and operating the orphanages, and the lawsuits claim they knew about the alleged abuse and covered it up.
About 35 of the plaintiffs accuse the late Rev. Herman Lammers of abuse. Lammers was director of Catholic Charities and an orphanage chaplain.
Other lawsuits allege in graphic terms that nuns and volunteers committed acts of abuse that sometimes involved religious objects.
To date, the lawyers for both sides have taken thousands of pages of testimony from plaintiffs and others.
All but one case involve at least some alleged abuse at an orphanage. The exception is a plaintiff suing over alleged sexual abuse by nuns at a school. Catholic Charities was not named as a defendant in that case.
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