3 Catholic Groups Settle Case

By Abe Levy
The Express-News
January 29, 2011

The West Texas youth who accused Father John M. Fiala of sexual abuse last spring confidentially settled a civil suit Thursday against the three remaining Catholic agencies with ties to the priest's previous ministry.

The undisclosed agreements came a week after Fiala's former employer, the Archdiocese of San Antonio, made public its $946,000 settlement with the youth.

After mediation Thursday in San Antonio, the settlements were signed by the Archdiocese of Omaha, where Fiala was ordained and previously worked; the Diocese of Corpus Christi; and the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, the Robstown-based religious order of which Fiala is a member.

The suit filed in April accuses Fiala of repeatedly molesting the youth three years ago when he was 16. It alleges the abuse took place during private catechism classes and trips out of town, including at gunpoint in a hotel room.

At the time, Fiala was head of three congregations in West Texas, including Sacred Heart of Mary Parish in Rocksprings. Rocksprings is the county seat of Edwards County, about 110 miles west of San Antonio.

“It's never been about the money for (the youth),” said his attorney, Tahira Khan Merritt of Dallas. “It's about holding accountable the people responsible for Fiala, and making sure Fiala goes to prison and never hurts another child.”

A trial in the civil case is still set for Aug. 15 in Bexar County since Fiala individually remains a defendant.

The priest also has charges pending in criminal courts.

Fiala, 52, is jailed in Dallas County after an undercover sting last fall led to his arrest on a charge of attempting to pay a hit man to kill his accuser.

In Edwards and Howard counties, he faces six indictments, mostly charges of aggravated sexual assault, stemming from the same accusations in the civil matter.

Rex Gunter, appointed in Dallas County to represent Fiala, did not return a call for comment. A call and e-mail to the U.S. supervisor of the religious order Friday were not returned.

The San Antonio archdiocese said it hopes the now-settled case will promote healing. It also reasserted its vow to keep children protected.

“Now that these settlements are complete, it is our hope that the plaintiff and his family can begin to put this sad chapter behind them,” Father Martin Leopold, chief administrator for the archdiocese, said in a statement.

“They remain in our prayers as do the people of the parishes and missions where Father John Fiala served. We also assure people throughout the archdiocese that we are committed to pursuing vigorously the prevention programs in all our schools and parishes.”

The San Antonio archdiocese has said Fiala's religious order assured it he had no sex abuse claims before it hired him in 2005.

It fired him in 2008 from all ministry in the archdiocese. His religious order also suspended him from ministry.

But after media coverage of the lawsuit, the Omaha archdiocese revealed it received a claim in 2002 of an unwanted sexual advance by Fiala to a teen in the 1980s when Fiala was assigned to a Nebraska parish.

The Omaha archdiocese said it reported this claim to civil authorities and the religious order, because Fiala by then had transferred there.

In a previous interview, the U.S. leader of the religious order said he determined the claim was inconclusive.

“The Archdiocese of Omaha was a willing participant in the settlement because it was not clear that all appropriate information was shared when Fiala left the archdiocese in 1996 to join (the religious order),” Deacon Tim McNeil, Omaha archdiocese chancellor, said in a news release Friday.

McNeil also indicated his archdiocese was sharing in the cost of the settlement with the Corpus Christi diocese.

The two entities have the same insurance company.

“In the interest of allowing healing to take place and because of the uncertainty of the litigation, we went ahead,” said Marty Wind, spokesman for the Corpus Christi diocese.

While the diocese doesn't directly control the religious order's operations in Robstown, which is part of its territory, the two entities have a history of cooperation.

“We're pleased that all the parties were able to resolve any and all claims,” Wind said.



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