$1.23M Settlement Latest Success for Attorney Aiding Sex Abuse Victims

By Paul Tharp
North Carolina Lawyers Weekly
July 1, 2010

A million-dollar settlement by the Charlotte Roman Catholic Diocese with a young victim of sex abuse is the latest success for attorney Seth H. Langson, whose practice is devoted solely to the representation of sexual abuse victims.

The order to which the priest who molested the victim belonged the Capuchin Franciscan Friars Province of the Sacred Stigmata of St. Francis also tendered $230,000 in exchange for dismissal with prejudice of claims against it.

"I believe that the payment of $1 million by the church represents one of the largest settlements paid in North Carolina by a religious organization for the sexual abuse of a child," Langson told Lawyers Weekly.

Langson, who practices in Charlotte, said he did not set out to establish a practice focusing on representation of sexual abuse victims.

"I thought I was going to be a legal services attorney, but I couldn't find a legal services job when I got out of law school," he said.

Instead, Langson moved to North Carolina, where he has worked in the three-attorney firm of Karro, Sellers & Langson since 1983.

"I can only practice law if I feel passionate about a case," he said. "I love representing underdogs, and my clients inspire me. These people are incredibly brave. By the time they come to me, they have suffered a significant amount of sexual abuse and misconduct."

Langson said he became passionate about the focus area after representing victims of a psychiatrist in the mid-1980s.

"No one else is crazy enough to try this," he chuckled. "There are easier ways to make money practicing law."

Durham attorney Elizabeth F. Kuniholm, who has also handled sexual abuse cases, agreed that they can be very difficult.

"It is a very difficult kind of practice because of the way these cases are defended," she said. "The the defense tends to blame the victims. The victims go through hell, and their attorneys go through hell."

It is also difficult to communicate the nature of a sex abuse victim's injuries to a jury, Kuniholm said. "Emotional harm is difficult for jurors to value and understand."

Charlotte case

In Langson's most recent case, the plaintiff was an altar boy at St. Matthew Catholic Church in Charlotte.

The complaint alleged that between February 1994 and October 2003, the diocese engaged in a pattern of employing sexual abusers as staff or priests.

Father Robert Yurgel, the plaintiff's abuser, was hired in July 1997 and employed at two Charlotte churches including St. Matthew until 1999. He was later transferred to New Jersey.

The plaintiff reported the abuse to police, and in the spring of 2008, according to a statement by the plaintiff, "Father Yurgel was arrested after admitting during a taped phone conversation that he molested me."

Yurgel pled guilty in February 2009 to felony second-degree sexual offense and is serving an active prison term of up to 10 years.

Pattern of victimization

Kuniholm said perpetrators follow a familiar pattern and are very skilled at becoming friends with victims and their family members.

St. Matthew seemed to be the perfect place for Yurgel. At the time the abuse took place in 1998, 40 percent of the church's 11,353 members were under the age of 18.

"They can sense who is vulnerable," Langson explained. "There is a grooming process. They befriend victims and insinuate themselves into their family."

That is exactly what Yurgel did, according to the plaintiff's complaint.

Yurgel first became close to the plaintiff when his parents asked him to come pray over the boy after he had a biopsy on his neck for a swollen lymph gland. He began eating dinner with the family and "ingratiated himself with the plaintiff's extended family, [and] spent time with the plaintiff and his relatives," the complaint states.

The plaintiff "was particularly vulnerable to emotional exploitation and domination because he had been sick, and because he was experiencing tension in [his] relationship with his father," according to the complaint.

Langson said the plaintiff's vulnerability made him a perfect target.

"There is a script they follow," Langson said. "They tell them not to tell anyone, and if they do tell anyone, no one will believe them."

That is what Yurgel told the plaintiff, according to the complaint.

After the plaintiff stopped communicating with Yurgel, he nonetheless continued "acts of ingratiating himself with the plaintiff's family and extended family," the complaint states. Yurgel continued to send Christmas gifts "to the plaintiff and his entire family every year from 1999 up to and including 2007E to send a message to the plaintiff that no one would believe him if he made accusations against Father Yurgel because Father Yurgel was so close and dearly beloved by the family."

The "close emotional control and domination over the plaintiff," the complaint alleged, "continued through late March 2008."

Langson said he never located any other minor victims of Yurgel. "That surprised me, frankly. Historically the pattern with sex abusers is that they have more than one victim," he said.

Victim profiles

Langson said that most of his clients were abused in their early teen years, some younger, with an equal split between the genders.

He said victims face a lifelong struggle of coming to terms with the abuse.

"They repress memory of abuse or push it aside so that it does not interfere with their daily lives," Langson said.

The plaintiff in the Charlotte case kept the knowledge of the abuse to himself for years, until after he went to college and he became "concerned that Father Yurgel may be harming" other boys.

"I want the struggle I have endured to be a symbol to other abuse survivors, that it is possible to bring criminal and civil justice to victims of sexual abuse," the plaintiff wrote in a statement.

"North Carolina is one of a few states that does not have a statute of limitation on criminal offenses," he emphasized.

Kuniholm said it takes many victims a long time to get to the point where they feel strong enough to confront their abusers. "There is a real loneliness in being a victim," she said. "They think the abuse was somehow their fault. They feel ashamed."

Langson said the damages in sex abuse cases are usually significant.

"This is a life-altering experience," he explained. "Victims are hospitalized for psychological problems. Their careers are derailed. They often resort to substance abuse. They require extraordinary therapy to overcome or learn to deal with what has happened to them."

Langson said he doesn't think there is any more abuse occurring now than in the past, but instances of abuse are garnering greater publicity.

"That is absolutely a good thing," he said. "Lawyers are exposing a history of abuse in various institutions, not just in the Catholic church."

Kuniholm agreed. "There is a greater awareness now. That awareness empowers victims to come forward," she said.

Langson said the publicity causes juries to be "much more receptive to claims and more likely to award higher damages. Every juror, invariably, will personally know someone who has been abused."


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