As deadline nears, adults flood Arizona courts with lawsuits alleging childhood sex abuse

By Lauren Castle
Arizona Republic
December 30, 2020

Maricopa County Superior Court, 101 W. Jefferson St., Phoenix.

So far, the majority of lawsuits filed under the The Arizona Child Victims Act appear to have been filed against Boy Scout organizations.

Former Bishop Thomas O'Brien

Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, speaks on the floor of the Senate at the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix on Monday, May 27, 2019.

Hundreds of civil lawsuits by people who allege they suffered abuse as children are being filed in Arizona's courts as a year-end deadline looms for them to seek justice.

Many of those filing are listed in court documents simply as “John Doe” or “Jane Doe.”

They have filed civil complaints against priests, teachers, volunteers, the Roman Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Boy Scout councils, Big Brothers Big Sisters and other institutions.

The Arizona Child Victims Act allows survivors of sex abuse to sue their perpetrators and organizations that allowed the incident to happen. The act, passed by lawmakers in 2019, raised the statute of limitations for a civil claim to the age of 30 from the previous age of 20. Survivors who are 30 or older have until Dec. 31 to file a claim.

The number of lawsuits filed under the act is not known, but an Arizona Republic survey of court dockets across the state indicates the number is well over 300. So far, the majority appear to have been filed against Boy Scout organizations.Annette Slade, 60, filed a lawsuit in November and chose to not be anonymous in hopes to encourage other survivors to come forward. 

She told The Republic she was abused at 10 years old by a music teacher while attending St. Thomas the Apostle School in the 1970s. Slade is suing the school and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix.

She is fed up with hearing stories about child abuse, she said.

"I want them to protect these children. It has really messed up my life," she said. "How many children are out there right now that are not being protected, who will end up suffering the same fate that I have over these many years?"

The Diocese of Phoenix did not respond to The Republic’s multiple requests for an interview on the subject.

The motivation behind the lawsuits

For those who say they were victims of abuse, civil lawsuits are a way to obtain justice when the criminal legal system has let them down or if they believe entities also need to be held accountable. 

Priests, pastors, Boy Scout leaders, teachers and others have been convicted in Arizona on criminal chargesfor molesting children. But some survivors believe the religious institutions, Scout councils and youth organizations were not held responsible.

Others have made police reports that didn't lead to prosecution. It can be horrific for children if they are ignored and can increase the trauma, Marci Hamilton, the CEO and legal director for Child USA, said. 

Others have watched their abusers take plea agreements or go through trials for other crimes. 

In other cases, many abusers are dead and survivors only can sue the entities that they believe didn’t protect them. 

Robert Pastor, Slade's lawyer, said survivors care about other things than just the money. He said the lawsuits allow for a "transformative justice." 

"I tell my clients, this litigation is an opportunity to take all of the baggage that they've been carrying around: the guilt, the shame, the depression, the anger, the anxiety, the resentment," Pastor said. "Take all of those feelings and let's put them on the shoulders of those who are actually responsible." 

Pastor filed a lawsuit on Nov. 18 on the behalf of a client against Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona and its national office. The lawsuit claimed it did not protect a 9-year-old child in 1983 from sexual abuse. The “big brother,” Italo Arbulu, later was convicted for molesting children in California. 

Jessica Whitney, the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona spokesperson, told The Republic it doesn't know about the lawsuit. 

“We are not aware of any lawsuit or filing, so we are not able to comment at this time,” Whitney said. 

According to the lawsuit, the child, who didn't want to be matched with Arbulu, was abused, and Arbulu violated policies by having overnight visits. 

Big Brothers Big Sisters has been under scrutiny for decades on how it handles child abuse allegations. At least 22 volunteers across the country were convicted of sex crimes from 1982 to 1987, according to a 1987 report by The Los Angeles Times

In 1992,the American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law did an analysis of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America’s sexual molestation reports from 1982 to 1991. Out of the 304 reports from those years, seven were from Arizona.  

The lawsuit against Arbulu referenced a 1982 report by the national organization on child abuse, which was published a year before the child and Arbulu were matched. The report stated an abuser would encourage overnight visits and that Big Brothers Big Sisters' clients are “a ‘high risk’ for the potential abuser.” 

The child’s family reported the abuse to the Phoenix Police Department. According to the survivor’s lawyer, Arbulu never was prosecuted in Maricopa County. 

The survivor has dealt with emotional distress, embarrassment, loss of self-esteem, disgrace, anger and more, according to the lawsuit. 

Decades later, in 2016, Arbulu was convicted of molesting children in California. He was sentenced to more than 100 years in prison for molesting five boys as a track and soccer coach. 

The Boy Scouts and the LDS church

Boy Scout councils in Arizona were hit with more than 290 lawsuits claiming they did not protect children from child predators. The state's councils are independent from Boy Scouts of America, which filed for bankruptcy and had its own deadline for abuse claims. 

Many of the troops were connected with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church and the Boy Scouts of America this year broke off their partnership that had lasted more than a century. 

The Abuse in Scouting law firm filed many of the claims. It filed a lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court last week on the behalf of at least 75 people between the ages of 20 to 70. The lawsuit is against the national BSA organization, the Grand Canyon Council, Catalina Council, Las Vegas Council, Crossroads of the West Council and Great Southwest Council. 

Andrew VanArsdale, a lawyer for the firm, said three groups of people are among its clients: those who grew up and were part of troops in Arizona, those who were brought to the state on trips, and others who were affiliated with a church-related troop in the state. 

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs were abused by Scoutmasters, den mothers and other youths in the troops, which were based out of churches, schools, Boys and Girls clubs, YMCAs, Lions Club and Elks Lodge locations. Some of the locations included Orangewood Elementary School and Christ the King Lutheran Church in Phoenix, First United Methodist Church in Mesa, Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Tolleson, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson and Christensen Elementary School in Flagstaff.

"The Boy Scouts of America knew they had a problem with pedophiles coming into their ranks and abusing children, and they didn't do enough to stop it," VanArsdale said. "They certainly didn't warn any parents." 

The law firm was able to make an agreement with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints allowing survivors to come forward past Arizona's Dec. 31 deadline. If the church doesn't keep its promise, the law firm is allowed to sue it in the future. 

Other attorneys also have filed lawsuits against Boy Scout councils claiming child sex abuse. 

Hurley, McKenna and Mertz P.C., a Chicago-based law firm, filed 30 lawsuits against councils in Maricopa and Pima County superior courts. Seven of the lawsuits are also against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. According to the lawsuits, the victims were between the ages of 9 to 15. The abuse occurred as late as 1972 and as recently as 2009. 

Attorney Mark McKenna said his clients filed the lawsuits because they are searching for the truth and want closure. He said entities that had close relationships with the Boy Scouts like the LDS Church need to answer the victims' questions. 

"What did the organizations know, when did they know it, and what did they do to stop the epidemic of pedophiles infiltrating Scout troops and sexually abusing scores of children," McKenna said in a statement. 

Allegations against the Catholic Church

The dioceses of Gallup, Phoenix and Tucson oversee Roman Catholic parishes and schools in Arizona. Numerous lawsuits filed under the Arizona Child Victims Act have named the dioceses, priests, other staff and Catholic schools.

The church and its religious orders have been accused for years of transferring accused priests from one diocese to another without alerting communities of their pasts. 

"This isn't just about holding the perpetrator accountable who is now deceased,"  said Tim Hale, an attorney representing a victim. "It's also about holding the members of the diocese and hierarchy who made the decisions to not prioritize the safety of children first and instead prioritize the reputation of the organization."

A lawsuit filed in September claimed at least 73 children have been sexually abused by priests, deacons and others overseen by the Diocese of Phoenix.

A lawsuit filed in November accused a female eucharistic minister of abusing teenage boy at St. William Catholic Parish in Avondale. 

Brian Clites, a religious studies professor at Case Western Reserve University, said abuse for children in the Catholic Church can be really traumatic and can be suppressed. He said a life event can trigger an adult survivor's memory of the abuse later.

Priests have a special role in the Church, and children could be confused about why a person who has a special connection with God would do harm to them, according to Rev. Gerard J. McGlone, a senior research fellow at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.

Therefore, it can be hard for them to come forward. 

In 2003, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, under Rick Romley, investigated the Diocese of Phoenix.

Now-former priest Joe Ladensack was told by a friend that he saw another priest molesting his teenage son. Ladensack called police and told then-Bishop Thomas O'Brien. 

O'Brien told the priest to tell the family to be quiet. Ladensack refused and went to Romley. O'Brien took away Ladensack's ministerial duties.

Under Romley, six priests were indicted; others fled the country; others were sued in civil court. 

O’Brien was granted immunity from prosecution after admitting his part in cover-ups.

He acknowledged about 50 priests and church staff were accused of abuse over the years and the diocese had paid millions to settle lawsuits. 

"I acknowledge that I allowed Roman Catholic priests under my supervision to work with minors after becoming aware of allegations of sexual misconduct," said the settlement agreement. "I further acknowledge that priests who had allegations of sexual misconduct made against them were transferred to ministries without full disclosure to their superiors or to the community in which they were assigned."

Clites said in his work he has found that many survivors will forgive the priests that have harmed them but remain angry at the bishops who were over the dioceses at the time. 

"They remain angry and resentful at the bishops," Clites said. "Especially when that priest was reported and they were told word of mouth that they would not have contact with kids again, and they found out 20 years later they were sent to a parish across a state line or a county line and continued to hurt more kids."

The Diocese of Phoenix has four lists for those who have been removed from ministry after claims of sexual misconduct with a minor:

  • Priests and deacons of the diocese: 18. 
  • Priests and deacons of other dioceses who served in the diocese: 13.
  • Priests of religious communities who served in the diocese: 28.
  • Brothers of religious communities who served in the diocese: 8.

The lists do not include names of those who were dead at the time of the accusations. 

The diocese made an agreement with the Maricopa County Attorney's Office to appoint a curator to oversee internal investigations and provide $700,000 for treatment of victims.

The diocese began publishing lists of accused priests in 2012. However, the civil lawsuit filed in September contends what has been done is not enough, because the diocese does not publicly identify accused priests until they are faced with criminal or civil legal proceedings. 

"The Diocese has publicly identified less than half of the actual number of Roman Catholic Church leaders who have been accused or suspected of posing a risk to children, and who have been assigned or in residence within the Diocese," the lawsuit stated. 

Alleged abuse in schools, parochial and public

Her mother sensed something wasn’t right with her fifth-grade daughter, Annette Slade recalled. 

She remembers her mother wanting to know what was wrong. The 10-year-old girl didn’t want to budge, but her mother wouldn’t give up. 

"It wasn't anything in particular," Slade said about her mom's intuition. "It was just a gut feeling." 

Slade told The Republic the music teacher abused her at St. Thomas. He would keep her after class or pull her out of other classes to molest her. She said no one ever questioned the teacher or checked on them in the music room. 

Slade's lawsuit is one of many involving Catholic schools in the Diocese of Phoenix.

At least four lawsuits were filed against St. Thomas for the time the Rev. John Doran was the pastor of the parish and an administrator for the school. Three of the lawsuits accuse Doran of abuse. The priest is on both the dioceses of Phoenix and Tucson’s credibly accused lists. He died in 1997. 

According to Slade's lawsuit, the diocese should have known that it “had numerous agents who had sexually molested children.” She went to St. Thomas while Doran was the pastor. 

“Defendants knew or should have known that some of the leaders and people working in Catholic institutions within the Diocese were not safe and that there was a specific danger of child sex abuse for children participating in their youth programs,” the lawsuit stated.

After her mother was able to get Slade to open up about the abuse, she immediately filed a report with Phoenix police. 

Slade said after the police report was filed, her mother and stepfather were asked to come to the school office one day. Slade and her brother went with them. 

"They basically told us it would be for everyone's best interest if we were to go to another school and leave St. Thomas," Slade told The Republic. 

The diocese did not respond to The Republic's request for comment.

Slade said she felt the Catholic Church was trying to "push it under the rug" and didn't give her any support or show empathy. 

She said the Church needs to "do as its supposed to be doing with its flock: protecting, encouraging and loving."

Slade said she hopes her lawsuit will motivate the Catholic Church to find a better way to protect children to prevent others from having the same story as her. She wants the Catholic Church to support survivors more, besides saying it did wrong in the past. 

Slade is no longer a practicing Catholic, but an atheist. She only goes to a church when it's for a funeral. 

Hale is one of the lawyers representing another St. Thomas student. He told The Republic his client was abused by Doran in the eighth grade from 1971-1972. 

"He grew up in a very devout family," Hale said. "So obviously, a priest like Doran is going to hold a very very high status in the eyes of the family." 

The lawsuit filed in September claimed Doran abused the child on and off school property. The priest told the child he had behavioral issues because he was "not being loved at home," according to the lawsuit.

Hale said the priest took the child on an overnight trip to the mountains alone. The house where they were staying did not have a phone. That's when the priest is accused of first abusing him. According to the lawsuit, the priest made the child touch his penis.  

On one occasion, the priest did not stop abusing the boy until after the child protested several times, according to the lawsuit. The child feared the priest would kill him, and when he told the priest to stop abusing him, Doran attacked him, according to the lawsuit. 

The child's parents reported the abuse to another priest and then-Bishop Edward McCarthy of the Phoenix diocese. According to the lawsuit, McCarthy told the parents Doran was in behavioral treatment and that if they went to the newspaper, their claims wouldn't be published. 

The lawsuit claimed McCarthy did not report the abuse to the police and said he would transfer Doran. A transfer did not happen at that time, the lawsuit said.

Doran called the parents multiple times asking to speak to the child or requesting to take him places, the lawsuit said. The parents refused. The child hid from him at school. Even after Doran was finally transferred, he called the family to ask if the child could visit him, according to the lawsuit. The family finally moved to California. 

The lawsuit claims Doran also stalked a child when he was overseen by the Diocese of Tucson. 

"When the boy’s parents reported the abuse to Defendants’ agents, those agents told the parents to keep Father Doran’s abuse of their son a secret because even though Father Doran’s sexual abuse of a child was a sin, it would be an even greater sin to bring scandal to the Roman Catholic Church,"the lawsuit said.

Hale said the diocese had the opportunity to remove Doran from ministry to prevent him from hurting other children. 

The boy, now an adult, has issues trusting others, dealing with authority figures and more, according to Hale. He said the man believes his academic and career path would have been different if he weren't abused. The man wants the diocese to acknowledge Doran's conduct, how it managed abusive priests and how it didn't protect children.  

Brophy College Preparatory also was hit with a lawsuit in September for claims against former priest James Sinnerud, who worked at the school in the 1980s. According to the victim's lawyers, the priest was a teacher and coach.

According to 2018 report by the Omaha World-Herald, the Midwest Province of the Society of Jesus suspended him from public ministry and pulled from working at a school in Nebraska after a sexual misconduct allegation from his past was brought forward. 

Public schools named in other lawsuits

Arizona public schools are also impacted by the new law.

Arizona has about 55,000 certified, working teachers. Every year, about 40 of them are disciplined by the Arizona State Board of Education or surrender their teaching certificate after allegations of sexual misconduct, a 2019 analysis by The Republic and KJZZ, the Phoenix public radio station, determined.

Tiffany Franco, 22, filed a lawsuit in May in Maricopa County Superior Court against former Red Mountain High School teacher Alan Grantham, Mesa Public Schools, other school staff and the city's police department. 

In the lawsuit, Franco claimed school administrators, teachers and an on-campus Mesa police officer ignored persistent rumors about a sexual relationship between her and Grantham. 

Grantham denied the allegations in 2019 and has not been criminally charged for Franco's claims.

Rumors swirled in 2014, but the school district didn't investigate until two years later, according to the lawsuit. By that time, Franco had graduated. Grantham resigned in November 2016 and surrendered his teaching certificate in 2018. 

Mesa Public Schools, the city's police department and a school resource office appealed to the U.S. District Court in Arizona in hopes it would dismiss the lawsuit. The court gave Franco 30 days to amend her complaint. 

Behind the Arizona Child Victims Act

Tasha Menaker, director of Arizona Coalition to End Sexual Violence, said knowing their abuser can cause children shame, confusion and betrayal. Sometimes the abuser may threaten a child to stay silent. 

"Sometimes they shame the survivor themselves and frame as though they are to blame for the abuse that's happening to them," Menaker said.

Children, especially, internalize these messages and have legitimate fears of coming forward that can last for years, she said. 

Across the country, advocates are encouraging states to look into statute of limitations reform on both the criminal and civil sides of the legal system.

Arizona doesn't have a statute of limitations for criminal charges. And Arizona joined 17 other states last year that revived expired civil claims by allowing survivors over 30 years old to have until Dec. 31 to file a lawsuit. Those who are children now will have until they are 30 to file a claim. 

The state law allows survivors to sue the abuser, any privately held entity and government agencies, including school districts and juvenile detention centers. 

Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, sponsored the bill and pushed for it to be passed, withholding his vote on the state budget until the bill was addressed. Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, co-sponsored the bill with Boyer and also withheld her vote on the budget.

Boyer said it was important to make sure survivors had the opportunity to confront their abusers in court and get closure. 

He said he first got he idea of improving the state law after learning about Dan Allender, who works with childhood sex abuse survivors. Boyer found out Arizona's statute of limitations law for survivors skewed really young; a survivor only had until the age of 20 to sue their abuser. 

"The fact that we bumped it up to 30 was an improvement, but I think we still have more to do," he said. 

Boyer, advocates and many lawyers representing survivors believe there should not be a statute of limitations because individual survivors reveal their abuse in different ways and at different times. 

Hamilton said the average age that survivors report they were abused is 52.

"The only way to protect children is to give the victim as long as they need," she said. 

Statutes of limitations benefit organizations that might be sued and their insurance companies. Many times, the insurer will handle the legal fees and any settlements. 

In some cases across the country, Boy Scout councils and Catholic dioceses have set up funds specifically created to deal with payments for sexual abuse claims. Many times, survivors receive payments that are less than what they could get as the result of a lawsuit. 

Funds can be good for survivors who are not emotionally or mentally able to go through the litigation process. Attorney Tim Hale said these types of funds allow many accusations to stay private and keeps identification of perpetrators private as well. 

Laws like the Arizona Child Victims Act help make institutions transparent and allow litigation to publicize evidence that can make today's children safer, Hale said. 

According to Child USA, 12 states have eliminated statutes of limitation on civil lawsuits: Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, Utah and Vermont. 

If Arizona won't eliminate the statue of limitations for civil lawsuits, Hale hopes lawmakers would extend the Dec. 31, 2020 deadline because of COVID-19. New York extended its deadline because of the pandemic, he said. 

Some survivors are stressed and the pandemic has made it more difficult for them to come forward, Hale said.

Legal roadblocks for survivors

The Arizona Child Victims Act has offered child abuse survivors the chance to seek justice, but more updates are needed so the right doesn't disappear, advocates say. 

Arizona's law makes it difficult for survivors to sue institutions, according to some lawyers. 

Hale said the law created a higher burden for the survivor to sue an entity because there must be gross negligence.

A finding for the plaintiff can occur only if the person can show child abuse took place and the institution knew there was a history of criminal conduct and covered it up. 

"For a survivor to come forward and be successful in Arizona, they must have a very, very clear and strong case," Hale said. 

Hale also said every state should require every adult to be a mandatory reporter with no exceptions. 

Arizona does require religious leaders to report child abuse if they see it. However, Arizona and some other states allow religious leaders to not report child abuse if they are informed through a religious confession while performing their duties. 

"A member of the clergy, a Christian Science practitioner or a priest who has received a confidential communication or a confession in that person's role ... may withhold reporting of the communication or confession if the member of the clergy, the Christian Science practitioner or the priest determines that it is reasonable and necessary within the concepts of the religion," the law states. 

Arizona state law allows priests, members of the clergy and Christian Science practitioners to not be a witness in any civil or criminal case concerning child abuse if a religious confession was made to them.

Two Mormon bishops and a teacher were sued in November and accused of not reporting a Bisbee father for sexually and physically abusing three of his children. A bishop claimed he did not have to report the abuse after being told by the father because of the legal exceptions for clergy. The father later was criminally charged but died in jail before a trial.

Boyer said institutions need to improve their practices to prevent child abuse and better oversight.  

Arizona is one of a few states that doesn't require overnight camps to perform criminal background checks on staff and volunteers. Some overnight camp organizers in Arizona take it upon themselves to conduct criminal checks of the adults who will be supervising children. But not all do.

Many child sexual abuse claims occurred at overnight camps. According to VanArsdale, many of the claims against the Boy Scouts involve leaders who did not have background checks. 

Menaker said Arizona needs to provide state funding for sexual assault services. This type of funding can support survivors be productive in the community. According to Menaker, 17 states provide funding for sexual assault services or prevention. 

Hamilton said therapy can cost a survivor thousands of dollars, and that is one reason why the lawsuits are important.



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