|Archdiocese Settles Suit for $946,000
By Abe Levy
January 21, 2011
Local Catholic officials announced Friday that they have settled a lawsuit for $946,000 against a now-fired priest accused of repeatedly sexually assaulting a 16-year-old boy, at times by gunpoint, in hotel rooms and during catechism classes.
Father John M. Fiala, 52, was sued by the youth last spring and since has been arrested twice on criminal charges.
Last year, he was indicted on six counts of sexually assaulting the teen in Edwards and Howard counties. And last November, Dallas-area police arrested him on a charge of attempting to hire a hit man to kill the youth, now 19.Fiala remains jailed in Dallas County.
The Archdiocese of San Antonio was named in the lawsuit along with former Archbishop Jose Gomez.
The lawsuit also names Fiala's religious order, the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity; the Diocese of Corpus Christi; and the Archdiocese of Omaha, Neb., where Fiala began as a priest in 1984.
Those parties still face a trial in the lawsuit, set for Aug. 15 in Bexar County.
The San Antonio archdiocese's part in the matter was inherited by Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller, who replaced Gomez in November.
He said at a news conference Friday that he regrets the hurt caused by the scandal.
“We have been trying for years to be transparent and clear and face the issues,” he said, adding that the settlement in part will go to counseling for the young man and his family. “The complete healing is beyond our reach without the grace of God and his mercy.”
In announcing the settlement, archdiocesan officials blamed Fiala's religious order. Before his hire by the San Antonio archdiocese in 2005, the order sent the archdiocese a letter of recommendation saying Fiala was free of any sex abuse claims, said Father Martin Leopold, head administrator for the archdiocese.
But news reports after the lawsuit revealed Fiala faced a sexual misconduct claim while a priest in the Omaha archdiocese. And subsequent arrests, while not factoring into the lawsuit, added troubling new dynamics for the archdiocese to weigh.
“We're not sure why we were given an incorrect letter of good standing” from the religious order, Leopold said. The lawsuit “had serious allegations and a jury could reward serious damages, and we thought it was prudent to settle.”
E-mails and calls to Father Gerard Sheehan, head of the religious order's U.S. division in Robstown, and Dallas attorney Rex Gunter, listed as Fiala's appointed attorney in a Dallas County arrest record, were not returned Friday.
Gomez removed Fiala permanently from priestly ministry in the fall of 2008 and informed the three parishes where Fiala was administrator, including Sacred Heart of Mary in the Edwards County town of Rocksprings — about 110 miles west of San Antonio — where the teen was a member.
His religious order also removed him from priestly ministry at that time.
Fiala also worked at nearby St. Raymond Mission in Leakey and St. Mary Magdalen Mission in Camp Wood. The alleged abuse ran from January to August 2008 while he was at the Rocksprings parish.
His strategy was to lure the teen into a secluded friendship with such perks as an MP3 player, cash, a car, a laptop and alcohol, the suit alleges. Fiala gave the teen a ride to an out-of-town hotel, where Fiala is accused of raping him at gunpoint.
Fiala was arrested last November after he tried to broker a deal for an undercover officer to kill his accuser, according to the Department of Public Safety, which teamed up with the Texas Rangers on the sting.
Last May, Gomez moved to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, where he'll soon become its next archbishop. The archdiocese has said his five-year tenure contained no new claims of sex abuse by priests.
The archdiocese estimates it now has paid out $6.63 million to victims of sexual abuse by its priests in the past few decades.
The San Antonio archdiocese maintained Friday that the lawsuit was the first time it had received a sexual abuse claim about Fiala. The archdiocese has said the teen's family notified it in 2008 only of concerns that Fiala was interfering with custodial rights.
But the youth's attorney, Tahira Khan Merritt of Dallas, said the teen's mother raised concerns about sex abuse to the archdiocese multiple times.
Merritt said the youth reached the settlement in mid-December with the archdiocese, adding that its leaders sought to minimize their role in the matter.
“They're always trying to say the victims are just after money,” she said. “I don't think any amount of money is going to compensate this victim, who suffered at gunpoint and faces a lifelong journey to recovery.
“I think the archdiocese by paying the settlement was unwilling to expose publicly their role in allowing this known sexual predator to work for them.”
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