Hawaii Bishop Denies Sexual Abuse Charges

By Larry Witham
Washington Times
August 14, 1991

The Roman Catholic bishop of Hawaii was charged with sexual abuse in a lawsuit last week, demonstrating how high and wide such allegations are spreading among American churches.

For the Catholic Church, it is the latest in a series of sex-abuse scandals involving priests. Protestant church officials also say that reports of sexual abuse or harassment by clergy have increased.

As churches brace for the financial blow of lawsuits, they also are trying to avoid a sex-abuse "witch hunt" and continue their healing role for the children and adults who are victims.

"Lawyers tend to dramatize the conflicts, whereas religious organizations need to focus on healing and reconciliation," said Mark Chopko, general counsel for the U.S. Catholic Conference.

In the Aug. 8 Hawaii suit, Bishop Joseph Ferrario and two other priests are charged with sexually abusing David Figueroa, 36, between 1972 and 1982.

Jeffrey R. Anderson, a Minnesota lawyer representing Mr. Figueroa, said they will ask for "substantial" damages from the diocese.

In a sex-abuse case last December against the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona, Mr. Anderson won his client an unprecedented $3.5 million award, though it was reduced to $1 million on appeal.

Patrick Downes, spokesman for the Diocese of Hawaii, said in a telephone interview that Bishop Ferrario denies the charge, first made within the church in 1985 and made public in 1989 in Baltimore.

Bishop Ferrario told reporters then that he counseled Mr. Figueroa, who now has AIDS, on his struggle with homosexuality.

Bishop Ferrario is the first member of the Catholic hierarchy in this country to face sex-abuse charges. Last month, British Columbia's Catholic Bishop Hubert Patrick O'Connor, 62, resigned to face prosecution on charges of rape and "indecent assault" against minors.

Some Protestant denominations have made sex-abuse policy a new priority.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) may eliminate its three-year time limit for reporting sexual misdeeds. Meanwhile, it called for quick investigation of complaints.

"We are facing a crisis terrible in its proportions and implications," a Presbyterian report said in June. "Between 10 and 23 percent of clergy nationwide have engaged in sexualized behavior or sexual contact with parishioners, clients, employees, etc., within a professional relationship."

A Wisconsin bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America has resigned as he faces charges of sexual abuse when he was a campus minister.

Two years ago the Lutheran denomination declared it would "not tolerate any forms of sexual abuse or harassment by any of its personnel" and is now collecting churchwide data on the issue.

Mr. Anderson said he is handling 100 cases of sexual abuse and pedophilia. Most involve Catholic priests, but some involve Episcopal and Lutheran clergy. The lawyer and other observers estimate that some $300 million has been paid out by the Catholic Church, mostly in sealed settlements over sex-abuse charges.

Though such high amounts are not reported in Protestant circles, some denominations are fighting the trend of plaintiffs suing the church for a minister's conduct. The Episcopal Diocese of Colorado is claiming in court that it is not liable in a 1990 lawsuit in which a woman charged a priest with sexual abuse.

The high damage claims "serve as an example to other dioceses around the country," Mr. Anderson said.

He said the Catholic Church multiplies its problem with pedophilia because it often covers up a priest's misbehavior. "By coming clean, they will limit their liability," Mr. Anderson said.


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