Catholic Priests Push Back Against Abuse Claims in Court
By Joan Hennessy
Courtroom News Service
August 02, 2019
As the Catholic Church digs itself out of a global sex abuse scandal, some priests are heading to court to contend they were wrongfully accused of misconduct and defamed when the church published their names on lists of “credibly accused” clergy members.
Seventeen years have passed since The Boston Globe documented widespread abuse by Catholic clergy. In the years that followed, victims all over the country sued the church and 19 dioceses and religious orders filed for bankruptcy protection, according to the National Catholic Reporter.
The church’s legal troubles reignited a year ago when a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailed abuse by priests in six state dioceses. The same month, a Pennsylvania bishop released a list of clergy accused of abuse. Other dioceses have done the same.
In February, when the Richmond diocese published its list of clergy members accused of sexual misconduct, Oliver Joseph Smalls, Jr.’s name was on it.
He was never informed of the date, location or specific acts of which he’d been accused, according to a lawsuit he filed this week in Fairfax County, Virginia Circuit Court against the Catholic Diocese of Richmond.
Smalls seeks $2.3 million for defamation claims and is represented by attorney Phillip Leiser of Tysons Corner, Virginia.
Deborah Cox, communications director for the diocese, said it is aware of Smalls’ case but declined to comment further.
The diocese website explains that when compiling the list, it considered “admissions, convictions, arrests, settlements of civil claims, detailed, consistent and plausible complaints, number of victims, priest’s assignment history, adverse actions against the priest by church authority, and whether the name was published on other lists of known abusers.”
Smalls has lived and ministered in Belize for most of the past 30 years and claims he has never had any affiliation with the Richmond diocese. In 1975, he spent eight months as a relief child care worker at the Virginia Home for Boys. The lawsuit contends he never engaged in inappropriate sexual or physical contact with any resident of the home.
“Most significantly,” the lawsuit concludes, “the odious nature of the allegations against him, coupled with the current public bias against clergy who have merely been accused of engaging in such egregious misconduct as sexually abusing minors has destroyed Smalls’ reputation.”
Smalls say he has been suspended by the Diocese of Belize based on the “patently and categorically false” allegations out of Virginia.
Other priests have taken the same approach as Smalls, fighting for their reputations in court. They argue the allegations against them are unsubstantiated, and the lists released in the pursuit of transparency have made them pariahs.
Four priests have filed suit in Corpus Christie, Texas, including one earlier this week. The lawsuits seek millions of dollars in actual and punitive damages, and were brought by attorney Andrew Greenwell of Harris and Greenwell.
In Lubbock, Texas, a former deacon who says he was incorrectly included on the “credibly accused” list sued the Lubbock Catholic Diocese for $1 million in damages in March.
The lists have not necessarily assuaged victims. In early July, an abuse victim said names were left off a list of 50 accused abusers made public by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, according to the Providence Journal.