Vatican Sued, Accused of Conspiring to Protect Abusive Priests

By Vickie Chachere
Associated Press State & Local Wire [St. Petersburg Fla]
April 3, 2002

Two men sued the Vatican on Wednesday for covering up sexual abuse at a Catholic boarding school in Tampa and a monastery in Portland, Ore.

Attorney Jeffrey Anderson filed suits accusing the Holy See, two religious orders, and the dioceses of Portland, Ore., Chicago and St. Petersburg of conspiring to hide two abusive clergymen by moving them across state and national lines.

It is the first time Anderson, who has represented plaintiffs in more than 400 lawsuits against church officials since the 1980s, has filed one against the Vatican. Anderson said he filed the lawsuits because the church continues to harbor priests accused of molesting children.

"What this case shows is at least in some instances bishops have not been guilty of poor judgment or mistakes, but church leaders have been guilty of making deceitful choices," Anderson said.

In the St. Petersburg case, Rick Gomez, a 28-year-old computer software consultant from California, said he was abused by then Salesian Brother William Burke who taught him when he was in the seventh grade at Mary Help of Christians School, a Tampa boarding school.

The Very Rev. James Heuser, vice provincial of the order, said Burke - now a fully ordained priest - is not in active ministry, but declined to say where he lives. He said he contacted Burke on Wednesday and he did not want to comment.

Heuser said he had not read the lawsuit, but on behalf of the order released a written statement Wednesday apologizing for the sexual misconduct of some of its members. The statement did not mention Burke.

"We are sorry for the sexual misconduct of some of our members, for the unspeakable violations of the young whom we have harmed rather than served," the statement said.

"We express our profound apologies to the victims and to their families. They put our trust in us, and we have failed them grievously."

The lawsuit, filed in Pinellas County Circuit Court, seeks damage in excess of $15,000 and names the Holy See, the Bishop of the Diocese of St. Petersburg and the Salesians of Don Bosco.

The St. Petersburg diocese responded Wednesday, saying it had no authority over the school or Burke and does not believe it should be named in the lawsuit. The school was run by the Salesian Society, which operated independently of the diocese, the statement said.

Gomez, who cried during a news conference announcing the lawsuits, said the abuse took place at the school, at the dormitory and during outdoor activities. Gomez's mother had worked at the boarding school as a secretary, but was not working there when the alleged abuse occurred.

"These were the people I looked up to and respected," Gomez said.

Anderson said the abuse occurred in 1987 and was reported to authorities two years later.

Records at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said it received a March 1989 report of a boy being kissed and fondled at the school. A detective tried to contact the priest two months later but was told he had been reassigned to New Jersey.

The detective was not able to contact the priest for questioning, and in September 1989, the state attorney's office declined to file charges.

Gomez said he was discouraged when criminal charges were not brought. He didn't consider pursuing a civil lawsuit until recently during a rash of publicity about abuse in the church. He contacted Anderson just 10 days ago.

The case in Portland was filed by an anonymous plaintiff against a now deceased priest.

The Portland case was filed in federal court by John V. Doe against the Holy See, Portland Archdiocese, the archbishop of Portland and the Order of the Friar Servants of Mary. It seeks damages of more than $75,000.

The Catholic bishop of Chicago is named in the Oregon lawsuit because the priest had served at a parish in Chicago where he was reported to be molesting children, Anderson said. He said church officials then transferred the priest to Portland.

The lawsuit accuses the late Father Andrew Ronan of abusing a teen-age boy in late 1965 or early 1966. Ronan left the priesthood in 1966 and died about 10 years ago, said Mary Jo Tully, a spokeswoman for the Portland Archdiocese.

In the Oregon case, the lawsuit contends Ronan began abusing children in his native Ireland in the late 1950s. Parents of the children reported the abuse and Ronan was moved to the all-boys high school in Chicago, the lawsuit said.

There he molested at least three male students, the lawsuit said, citing the church's own records.

In a written statement released Wednesday, the Archdiocese of Chicago said a preliminary review of diocesan records did not reveal any "incident of misconduct" involving Ronan. The statement cites the Official Catholic Directory as listing Ronan as a staff member of a now-closed Catholic high school on the city's West Side who worked at the school from 1960 to 1965.

Ronan was again moved to St. Albert's Church in Portland where he met the plaintiff, who alleges the abuse occurred over several months.

Tully said the Portland archdiocese swiftly stripped Ronan of his right to function as a priest in 1966 after a sex-abuse complaint was lodged against him. He was reduced to being a lay member of the church, she said.

Tully said she believes the plaintiff is the same person who complained to the archdiocese about Ronan in 1966.

"As soon as we received the allegations in 1966, the archdiocese took swift and decisive action," she said. "Judicial proceedings were initiated under canon law."

Tully said there is no evidence the archdiocese knew of any similar previous allegations against Ronan.

Tully said there is also no St. Albert's church in the Portland diocese and said Ronan was assigned to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Sorrowful Mother, known as the Grotto.

Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, Vatican ambassador to the United States, did not immediately return calls for comment.

Bill Ryan, a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the conference's general counsel, Mark Chopko, had not seen the complaint and the conference did not have any comment.

No one has successfully sued the Vatican in a sex abuse lawsuit, although a few lawyers have tried, said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a priest who co-authored a 1985 report to the U.S. bishops warning more must be done to stop abuse.

Doyle, a canon law expert who worked in the Vatican embassy in Washington in the 1980s, now testifies on behalf of plaintiffs in abuse cases against the church and said he will be an expert witness for Anderson.

Anderson said it is not the first time he has sued the Salesians for transferring clergy accused of being pedophiles. A year ago, he filed suit against the order in Chicago alleging a priest who was under investigation for abusing children in Chicago was also moved to New Jersey.

The Salesian order said in its statement it recently began reviewing all past and present allegations of abuse and is removing anyone from the ministry who have been accused of misconduct. Past allegations are being reported to social services and police officials, the order said.

It is also instituting a review board of non-Salesians to assess accusations, the order said.

Last month, Anderson filed a lawsuit accusing all U.S. bishops and three dioceses of conspiring to cover up sexual abuse by former Bishop Anthony O'Connell of West Palm Beach, who resigned after admitting he inappropriately touched a teen-ager more than 25 years ago.

Anderson based that suit on racketeering laws meant to bring down the mob.


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