Secrecy Crumbles in Priest Sex Cases

By Dorothy Korber
Sacramento Bee (California)
April 1, 2002

Secret settlements in sex-abuse cases against Catholic priests are unraveling across America as waves of molestation victims make their stories public.

Two such cases were disclosed in the Sacramento Diocese last month, with settlement recipients revealing their accusations despite the gag orders they had signed.

The catalyst is the scandal ignited by a Boston Globe investigation, which revealed that since 1997 the Boston Archdiocese had secretly settled 50 lawsuits totaling more than $10 million against one defrocked priest, convicted pedophile John J. Geoghan.

Confidential settlements are a common tool for businesses and institutions seeking to squelch scandal or conceal dollar amounts. But in the case of child molestation by clergy, advocates for victims say, hushing up the details can imperil other children and prolong the harm already done.

"These confidential settlements are insisted upon by church authorities, and their goal is simply damage control," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests - and an abuse victim himself. "The victims are caught between a rock and a hard place. They're hurting, they need therapy, and they need financial help to pay for it. So they take the settlement.

"But talking about our abuse is the first step toward healing. Forbidding us to talk is revictimizing us."

The church does not have a global policy mandating secret settlements in sex-abuse cases. Each diocese manages its own finances and pays its own settlements. When asked by The Bee, officials for the Sacramento Diocese did not divulge their rationale for demanding confidentiality.

Protecting children from future harm is the paramount issue for Melissa Knight-Fine, who heads the Sacramento-based Legislative Coalition to Prevent Child Abuse.

"Confidential settlements are a huge problem in protecting children," she said. "The people who lose out are families and children. If the information isn't public - if parents don't know that a certain priest may put their children at risk - they can't act to head off future abuse."

Knight-Fine said secrecy shields the abuser's supervisors as well as the abuser: "Sometimes the goal of confidential settlements is to protect the people in charge - the ones responsible for creating the situation that allows the abuse to occur."

Settlements for priests' sexual misconduct can drain a diocese's resources - although the many secret agreements make precise amounts problematic. Writer Jason Berry, in the latest edition of his book, "Lead Us Not into Temptation," estimates that the sexual misconduct of its priests has cost the American Roman Catholic Church $1 billion.

And the bill is climbing. Last month, the Boston Archdiocese agreed to pay up to $30 million to another 86 of Geoghan's victims.

"The Catholic Church is hemorrhaging money because of systemic problems over sexual behavior patterns within the ranks," Berry said in an interview last week. "The secrecy is pathological."

The motive for secrecy is to protect the status quo, according to Anson Shupe, a sociologist at Indiana/Purdue University who conducts research on clergy sexual abuse. He likens the Catholic hierarchy to a good-old-boys club.

"Clearly, the priest is protected over the people in the pews," Shupe said.

In Sacramento, out-of-court settlements have ranged from $30,000 to $300,000, according to diocese officials, who will detail neither the number of cases nor the nature of the allegations. Most of the money comes from insurance, according to David Deibel, vicar of canonical affairs, with deductibles paid by the diocese.

Two cases involving the Sacramento Diocese were reported in The Bee in the past two weeks.

Michael Beam, now 47, broke a confidentiality agreement when he publicly accused the Rev. Michael Walsh of sexually assaulting him in the 1970s. Walsh is communications director for the Sacramento Diocese and assigned to St. John Vianney Parish in Rancho Cordova.

The second local case involves the Rev. Vincent Brady, now pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Lincoln. Susann Hoey Lees told The Bee that Brady began molesting her in 1973 when she was 10 and attending St. Vincent Ferrer Parish in Vallejo. A confidential settlement was reached in 1999.

Though both Walsh and Brady have denied the allegations against them, the diocese still settled with their accusers. It's a question of money, Deibel said in a written response to questions by The Bee.

"Oftentimes settlements are made when allegations of misconduct are made because the legal costs of defense are greater than the cost of the settlement," he wrote.

Cardinal Roger Mahony recently announced that the Los Angeles Archdiocese will not take legal action against sex-abuse victims who break their confidentiality agreements. Sacramento Bishop William Weigand has remained silent on this issue - and on other questions regarding sexual misconduct in his diocese.

The Sacramento Diocese is in the process of updating its 1995 policy on how it handles allegations of sexual misconduct, according to the Rev. Jim Murphy, diocesan spokesman. Under consideration is a toll-free hot line for reporting suspected abuse.

Under the current policy, when an accusation is made against a priest, the priest must step down while the claim is investigated, Murphy said.

In his written statement, Deibel said that the church notifies police when minors are involved, as required by state law.

"However, when the church receives a complaint from an adult, or from an adult who was a minor when the possible misconduct took place, state law does not require reporting," Deibel said.

"Our first concern is always for the injured, especially children and adolescents, and then to prevent further harm," he said in a statement on the Walsh case.

Deibel did not respond to questions about the church's rationale for demanding confidentiality in the settlements. The repercussions for people who break their secrecy agreements will be determined case by case, he indicated.

As a practical matter, said Sacramento attorney John Poswall, there are no repercussions for violating such an agreement.

"Once the person has gone public, the damage is done as far as the church is concerned," Poswall said. "The last thing they want is more bad publicity - which is what they'd get if they went after the whistle-blower for breach of contract."

In 1985, Poswall represented another young man who said Michael Walsh had sexually assaulted him. His client also accepted an undisclosed settlement from the diocese. Walsh denied the charge in that case, too.

Poswall, a former Catholic, said the church's response in these cases mirrors that of a big corporation trying to cut its losses and cover up its problems. "From my perspective, it totally undermines the church's position as a moral leader," he said.

But plaintiffs' lawyers also play a role in this backstage drama. Sociologist Shupe is frequently an expert witness in priest abuse lawsuits. He recalls a case where the victim's attorney pressured the church to make a large secret settlement up front - or risk public revelations.

Donald I. Hoard, a victims advocate, said he experienced a similar situation firsthand when his son was sexually abused by a priest at a Catholic youth camp. In 1994, Hoard's son and eight other victims refused to accept a secret settlement offered by the Santa Rosa Diocese, despite heavy pressure from their own lawyer to take the deal.

"In my son's mind, the money meant nothing," the Santa Rosa man said. "He wanted the priest's name revealed to the public. And, thank God, it was. As a result, three more victims came forward - younger victims - and their accusations led to the criminal prosecution of the priest."

Hoard, speaking for victims and their families, says that full disclosure of these allegations is the best way to deal with the problem of clergy sexual abuse.

"We hear about secret settlements covering up bad tires or dangerous cars," Hoard said. "Successful legal arguments are made that such cases should be unsealed because it's in the best interest of the public. Well, there's no more dangerous product than a renegade priest who molests kids."


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