|How Church Fights Back in Abuse Cases
Some Victims Say If They Sue, They Pay the Price. The Archdiocese Says Its Insurers Dictate Tactics
By Christopher K. Hepp
March 22, 2002
The Roman Catholic Church's leaders here and elsewhere have urged compassion for victims of sexual abuse by priests. That is, until they enter the realm of the courts.
There, the record shows, the church's compassion gives way to tough, pragmatic legal tactics that often have little to do with whether the abuse took place and the emotional well-being of the person bringing the suit.
Men and women who claim they were victimized while still children or teenagers can find themselves the target of private investigations, countersuits, and withering interrogations by the church lawyers.
In one well-known case, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia countersued a victim's parents, contending they were, in part, at fault for the abuse because they were negligent in supervising their child. The archdiocese's spokeswoman said that decision was dictated by the church's insurer - a circumstance that experts in the field say is not uncommon.
The spokeswoman, Catherine Rossi, said of the countersuit: "Most of the decisions about legal tactics were made by our insurance company and out of our control since the language contained in our insurance stipulated, 'The insured shall cooperate with the company and upon the company's request, assist in making settlements, in the conduct of the insured.' " In another case, the archdiocese responded to a Bucks County teenager's suit by demanding his name be made public in court papers. The church's lawyers maintained the action was necessary so they could adequately defend the case. The young man's mother and his lawyer, Stephen C. Rubino, say this demand seemed designed for one purpose: to embarrass, and thus intimidate, the victim.
"They will stop at nothing," said Rubino, who has represented more than 250 clients with claims of abuse by clergymen. "They play the hardball version of hardball. It is all perfectly legal, but it does not match their rhetoric as being caring for the victim."
The church contends its actions are necessary to defend itself and its priests, especially if a claim has not been proven.
"The victims of clergy sexual abuse deserve the church's utmost compassion and care," Rossi said. "We acknowledge their pain and recognize that some of them may feel they were not treated fairly in many regards. . . . Yet the archdiocese and its attorneys have the responsibility to use the legal process to determine which cases of abuse have merit and which do not."
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that the church "prefers not to handle these matters in a court of law. We prefer these matters be handled in mediation where people can sit down and settle things without going to court."
Once a victim has sued, however, "the rules of a court of law take over," she said.
The reason: The church faces millions of dollars in liability in many of these cases. "There is a well-founded fear that the financial burden of this can quickly overwhelm financial resources," Mark Chopka, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer recently. Chopka declined comment for this story.
Rubino and others who have represented abuse victims say the church relies on an array of defenses, typically arguing that too much time has elapsed, or that religious institutions are shielded from certain court actions by the First Amendment right of religious freedom. Or that the priest - if he abused a minor - was not acting in the church's interests and therefore the church is not liable.
The church's first line of defense is often the statute of limitations, said Jeffrey Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., lawyer who specializes in representing plaintiffs in clergy abuse claims. Often, victims come forward years or even decades after incidents took place, and long after the time limits for taking legal action in most states, Anderson said.
Tougher tactics are turned to as well.
In Portland, Ore., the church in 1999 countersued Joseph Elliott for slander when he alleged that he had been abused by his childhood priest. The countersuit was delivered to Elliott at his hair salon during business hours.
"It was clearly done to humiliate him," said Anderson, Elliott's lawyer. The case eventually was settled out of court.
In a New York case in which a Poughkeepsie priest performed oral sex on a 16-year-old boy in the parish rectory, the priest eventually pleaded guilty to a criminal charge. But the church responded to the victim's civil suit by blaming the youth, saying he "willingly consented."
In a 1998 deposition in Cleveland, church lawyers grilled a 19-year-old man about the intimate details of the sexual assaults he had endured at age 14 at the hands of a Catholic grade school's principal.
In Philadelphia, the archdiocese, in the mid-1990s, countersued the parents of a Northeast Philadelphia man who alleged that as a teenager he had been sexually abused for years by his family's priest. In that case, known by the man's initials - EJM - the countersuit suggested that the man's parents "may have consented to the actions alleged in the complaint."
"It was just an outrage what they did to this wonderful, devoted Catholic family," said Anderson, who helped represent EJM as well. "I have little doubt that the countersuit contributed to the premature death of my client's father. . . . It was an outrage."
Anderson's client eventually received a monetary settlement from the archdiocese.
It was in that case, Rossi said, that the archdiocese's legal tactics were dictated by its insurance agreement.
Legal and insurance experts say it is not unusual for an insurance company to press a client to mount the strongest defense possible in such a lawsuit.
"Insurance companies are worried about the financial impact, whereas the client might have other issues at stake," said John Andre, vice president of A.M. Best Co., an insurance rating agency in Oldwick, N.J.
A Lower Makefield, Bucks County, woman said last week that she was shocked by her family's experience with the church after her son reported that he had been abused by a parish priest, the Rev. Michael W. Swierzy.
The victim in this instance was 13 when the abuse began. It continued until he was 17. In 1997, when she learned of the abuse, the victim's mother immediately contacted the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for help.
"We did this in a very, very prayerful spirit," the woman, who asked that she not be identified, said recently. ". . . What I didn't know was they had already called in their legal staff. Right away they regarded us as the enemy."
Father Swierzy eventually pleaded guilty to corrupting the morals of a minor in the case.
Afterwards, when Father Swierzy's victim sued the archdiocese, the church demanded the young man's name be made public in court documents. The church's lawyers contended that was necessary to alert anyone who might have information that could aid in the church's defense.
Such actions seem to run counter to views offered yesterday by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua. In an article in the Catholic Standard and Times, Bevilacqua said the archdiocese had decided not to identify priests guilty of sexual transgressions out of deference to their victims.
"If we reveal the names of priests, there is a very good possibility that the names of the victims will surface," the cardinal said. ". . . I don't want them to suffer again by having their names published."
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