Jury Reaches Verdict in Priest Abuse Suit against Archdiocese

By Bill Bishop
The Register-Guard [Portland OR]
March 14, 2007

A jury returned a unanimous verdict in less than one hour Tuesday in a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Portland by a Hillsboro man who alleges that he was abused by a Catholic priest 22 years ago.

But the verdict will not be made public for several days. Even then, it will not settle the case.

Instead, it will serve only to help U.S. District Judge Robert Jones decide one question: Is $13.7 million enough money to cover possible jury verdicts in 22 claims against the archdiocese? His answer is pivotal for the church's plan to reorganize its finances, pay 146 sexual abuse claims settled so far, and cover the unsettled claims - without having to sell any church properties to do it.

"This is a very unique proceeding," Jones told the six-person jury, reminding them it is "of vast importance" that they afford the church no special treatment in deciding the facts.

Outside the courtroom, critics of church leaders, and of their bankruptcy plan, said the legal process already heavily favors the church in two ways. First, a judge-imposed gag order prevents victims and their lawyers from talking about their cases publicly or explaining the legal process. Also, the hearings process does not make public any information about whether church leaders knew about and covered up sex abuse allegations against priests, allowing them to continue molesting children.

"The most important information the public needs to know to protect their children is who knew what, when, and why these perpetrators were allowed to remain in the ministry. That is the root cause of why so many children were molested," said Mary Grant, western regional director of the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests.

Citing a database maintained by bishopaccountability .org, SNAP officials say more than 60 priests who have worked in the archdiocese territory have been accused of or sued for child abuse.

In Tuesday's hearing, Matthew Clemens, 38, testified about two sexual molestations he is alleged to have suffered on a single day 22 years ago at the hands of Donald Durand, a priest at his family's church. Clemens said he began recalling the incidents after news reports named Durand as an alleged molester of two other boys.

Evidence from his therapist indicated that Clemens - like up to 64 percent of trauma victims - experienced memory disruption, or "traumatic forgetting" of the incident. The therapist's report said the incidents left Clemens terrified of sexual activity, and emotionally and socially isolated.

Clemens said he has never had intimate sexual relations with anyone since the alleged abuse by Durand. He said therapy has helped him understand why he had been suicidal, depressed and isolated. He said he came forward in hopes of helping others who suffered the same trauma.

"I feel there needs to be some responsibility," Clemens said. "There is nothing but denials about what is happening."

Portland lawyer Thomas Dulcich, representing the archdiocese, was careful to avoid attacking Clemens. Instead, he said Clemens is the victim of poor therapeutic treatment that implanted memories of abuse in his mind.

Dulcich described Clemens as a very successful civil engineer. He said church leaders heard "not one complaint" against Durand in his 42 years as a priest. Dulcich questioned how, at age 16, Clemens could forget such alleged traumatic abuse by Durand.

"None of this is Mr. Clemens' fault," Dulcich told the six-member jury. "If he is a victim, he is a victim of improper therapy that has caused him to make false accusations."

In a second hearing before Jones in the afternoon, lawyer Gary Bisaccio presented the case of two men who allege that Durand molested them while forcing them to wrestle with him on numerous occasions when they were ages 12 and 13.

The incidents are alleged to have happened mostly at a Catholic school they attended, although one incident allegedly happened in the same remote cabin where Clemens said he was molested by Durand, according to the lawsuit by Don Slaney and Greg Ferris.

Ferris claims that the abuse caused him to drop out of school, and led him to a life of poverty, thievery, drug and alcohol abuse, and relationship problems. Slaney claims the abuse caused him to shun male friendship since he was 13 years old and led him to drug abuse.

Dulcich told jurors the wrestling was not sexual in nature.

"We have a situation, I'm sorry to say ... most of those problems have been caused by their own choices," Dulcich told a separate panel of six jurors.

Jones plans to conduct two similar "mini-trials" daily until he has heard all the unsettled claims. He then will reveal publicly the jury verdicts and his assessment of the viability of the settlement fund in the proposed reorganization plan.

Hearings on the plan's approval are slated for April 10 in bankruptcy court in Portland.

Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.