Priest Sex-abuse Lawsuit Filed against Catholic Diocese of Orlando

By Walter Pacheco
Orlando Sentinel
July 20, 2011,0,3581481.story

The Catholic Diocese of Orlando came under fire again this week after a man filed a lawsuit alleging that a former priest who had a history of sexual-abuse complaints abused him multiple times nearly 40 years ago when he was a teen.

The Orlando victim, who is now 52, says Thomas Sykes, a priest who worked at St. John Vianney parish and Bishop Moore Catholic High School in the mid-1970s, sexually abused him on a trip to a New York Franciscan congregation and at various locations in Orlando, including Sykes' apartment.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday also says diocese officials had agreed in 1994 to pay indefinitely for the victim's psychological treatment but discontinued payments in 2008.

Court records show the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, a New York-based order, also is named in the suit.

In an email Wednesday to the Orlando Sentinel, diocese spokeswoman Carol Brinati said "the Diocese will review the complaint and respond appropriately with the goal of seeking an amicable resolution."

Brinati said the diocese has provided pastoral assistance to the victim for a number of years and officials will "pray for all those involved in this situation."

Sex abuse began when he was 13

The lawsuit says Sykes began sexually abusing the victim when he met him at St. John Vianney parish in the early 1970s. The victim was 13 at the time.

"[Sykes] took a special interest in [the victim] and his brother, and used his position as a priest to gain the trust and confidence of [the victim] and his family," the lawsuit says.

Court records say the first incident of sexual abuse occurred at a motel during a road trip to the Northeast, which included a stop at the New York headquarters of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement.

The suit says abuse continued for several years, including the four years the victim attended Bishop Moore High, where Sykes worked as a priest.

The victim says the Franciscan order knew of Sykes' "sexual perversity and inappropriate contact with children" and "took no action" to protect him.

In a statement released to the media Wednesday, the victim says his brother also was sexually abused by Sykes.

"As kids, we both sought guidance and counsel from Father Sykes as our trusted priest, and instead, he sexually abused us," the statement says. "My brother hanged himself from a tree in his front yard because he couldn't cope with what Sykes did to us anymore."

The lawsuit also says diocese officials had agreed to pay the victim a lump payment of $50,000 to cover current medical bills.

A June 2002 letter from Chancellor Sister Lucy Vazquez to the victim says the diocese "will be happy to pay for any counseling bills."

The diocese paid for all counseling bills from 1994 to 2008, but stopped just as the victim developed ideas of suicide, alcohol abuse and other symptoms stemming from severe depression, the lawsuit says.

At a news conference in front of the Orange County Courthouse on Wednesday afternoon, the victim's lawyer, Jessica Arbour, said the diocese in 2008 had asked the victim to sign an agreement releasing it from the previous settlement.

"They refused to pay for his additional medical bills," Arbour said. "My client refused to sign the new agreement. As a result, he now has more than $30,000 worth of medical bills by his own estimate that are unpaid."

Arbour said her client is seeking damages to cover his mental-health costs and could ask the court to allow him to ask for punitive damages.

Previous sex-abuse complaints

This is not the first time the diocese has received complaints about Sykes, who is now dead.

The diocese in 2007 announced it had received a credible allegation of child-sex abuse involving Sykes.

At the time, Sykes was a member of the Franciscan order. He also had served at St. Teresa Catholic Church inTitusville.

The accusation, first made to the diocese in the 1970s, led the diocese to force Sykes to leave in 1976, according to a deposition Sykes gave in 1987 in a Brevard County case involving another priest accused of molestation.

The Vatican eventually defrocked Sykes, according to diocesan officials.

Reports show Sykes later married and moved to the Boston area. It is unclear when he died. or 407-420-6262


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