Gr Diocese Reveals $500,000 Payment in Decades-Old Sexual Abuse Claims
The Money - Paid out in 1994 - Went to 3 Women Who Said a Priest Abused Them When They Were Girls

Grand Rapid Press (Michigan)
April 6, 2002

The Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids acknowledges it paid more than $500,000 in 1994 to three women who were sexually abused as young girls and teens by a Grand Rapids priest.

Bishop Robert Rose on Friday confirmed the payout to the women -- all siblings -- after the settlement document was obtained by The Press.

He said the diocese bears some responsibility because the bishop at the time knew of allegations against the Rev. John Thomas Sullivan before he arrived in Grand Rapids in 1958. Sullivan served three parishes here before leaving in 1960. The women did not come forward until 1993.

"I felt awful about it when I heard it, and I feel the same today. It should never have happened," Rose said.

The settlement is the largest the 11-county diocese has paid in a sexual-abuse case, said John Tully, trial lawyer for the diocese.

Tully said Sullivan, who died three years ago, showed no remorse when interviewed in 1994. "He was from my perspective just amoral. He just had no concept that what he had done was wrong."

The case is coming to light as the Catholic Church nationally is dealing with a crescendo of sexual abuse charges against priests, and anger against dioceses for covering them up.

One of the Grand Rapids victims, who agreed to talk on condition her name not be used, said her case was "handled respectfully and with dignity by the representatives of the church. " But she said she struggles to this day with the emotional fallout.

The West Michigan woman said Sullivan repeatedly performed sexual acts on her and her sisters, including rape, over a five-year period.

"This was not just an issue of wayward sexual behavior," said the woman. "It was about horrible, horrendous abuse of power."

Earlier this week, Rose sought to reassure the public about how the 154,000-member diocese handles sexual abuse allegations.

In an essay in The Press, Rose wrote, "There has not been a single substantiated allegation of child abuse that has occurred in my time as bishop of Grand Rapids." Rose has been bishop since 1989.

Rose stood by his statement Friday. While the allegation arose during his tenure, the abuse itself occurred long before then, he noted.

'Nasty guy' retired in San Diego

Sullivan served Holy Spirit Church on Grand Rapids' West Side, where the girls were parishioners, St. Jude's of Northeast Grand Rapids and St. Patrick's of Grand Haven.

Where Sullivan served next is not clear, Tully said. Eventually he was a priest in Arizona, Tully added.

The $500,000 was paid in November 1994, according to the settlement document. The diocese paid an additional $61,000 for the women's counseling costs, records provided by their attorney show.

The diocese's investigation confirmed the women's allegations were true, Tully said. Sullivan, who lived in a San Diego retirement home at the time of the settlement, "acknowledged inappropriate conduct with one of the three sisters, but we felt all three allegations had substance," Tully said.

Further, records indicate Bishop Allen Babcock, who oversaw the Grand Rapids diocese when Sullivan served here, knew there had been allegations against Sullivan before he arrived, Tully said.

While serving in the Diocese of Manchester, N.H., where he was ordained, Sullivan fathered a child and attempted suicide, according to a letter the Manchester bishop sent at the time, Tully said.

Tully said the letter also cited a violation of the Mann Act -- a federal law making it illegal to transport someone across state lines for immoral purposes -- but he did not have the details. The Manchester diocese refused to comment.

"(Babcock) said he had an interview with Sullivan and felt he was sincere in his desire to turn (over) a new leaf, and he was going to accept him into the diocese of Grand Rapids," Tully said of a 1958 letter Babcock wrote to the Manchester bishop.

In another letter to the bishop two years later, about the time Sullivan departed from Grand Rapids, Babcock said the priest "appeared to be sincere in his efforts to amend for his past," Tully said.

But the 1960 letter also hinted of possible misconduct. Tully quoted Babcock's letter as stating that while "nothing of an immoral nature came out in the open" during Sullivan's tenure, "There were indications of danger in his conduct with children."

Babcock died in 1969. Tully, however, said he found no evidence that sexual-abuse allegations were made against Sullivan while he was here. The women's allegations in 1993 were "the first notice we had of him or any improper conduct on his part," he said.

Rose said the fact Babcock apparently knew of the previous allegations was a factor in the size of the settlement, which he said was paid for by the diocese insurance policy.

"I'm not defending what Bishop Babcock did, but he acted as others were doing routinely. You made sure the man had repented and he was trying to make a new start."

Today, Rose added, "he never would have gotten into the diocese."

Tully did not know if Sullivan was charged with abuse after leaving Grand Rapids.

But after learning of the 1993 allegations in West Michigan, bishops in San Diego and Phoenix prohibited Sullivan from performing priestly duties, Tully said. Inquiries to the Phoenix diocese were not answered Friday.

There is no indication Sullivan left West Michigan because of the sexual abuse, Tully said, but rather because he was "a nasty guy" who did not get along with other priests.

'It robs children of their faith'

Sullivan's sexual abuse of the three sisters did "devastating" physical, emotional and spiritual damage, said the victim who agreed to be interviewed. Because of the abuse, neither she nor her sisters belong to the Catholic Church, she said.

"What it does is you have absolutely no trust," said the woman, now in her 50s. "Here a person who is supposed to be a representative of Jesus Christ on Earth does these terrible things. You end up thinking you are a terrible person. You have done something wrong and it blackens your soul. You lose your soul.

"I think it robs children of their faith."

She said the abuse started when the girls were between 7 and 12 years old. She said the incidents continued for about five years, even after the priest moved out of the diocese. She said he was a friend of her parents and often abused her while visiting them. He also molested them in the church and in rides in his car, she said.

"When a priest comes in and does this stuff, it isn't just a guy who acts out sexually and rapes children. It's all the other things that go around it -- the lying, the betrayal, the confusion."

She said the sisters did not come forward with the charges earlier because none of them knew it had happened to the others. Some of them had repressed memories that emerged in therapy, she said.

"It was an extremely painful and shameful experience for all of us, something we never even imagined bringing forward. We kind of suffered in silence about this. We just put it way back in the recesses of our minds and tried to deal with it as best we could."

The women were prepared to sue the diocese, but no lawsuit was filed. Their attorney, James Wernstrom, said the diocese "took the high road" by investigating the charges and agreeing to a reasonable settlement.

"I don't think there were any reported incidences back then that they shoved under the table, at least we didn't find any," Wernstrom said. "I think it arguably came as much of a shock to them as it was to others."

The diocese did not report the case to civil authorities because the women were represented by a lawyer and could have pursued a criminal charge if they wished, Tully said. The diocese does report any sexual abuse of minors to the prosecutor's office, he said.

Diocese settled twice in 1990s cases

Tully and Rose said there have been only two other sexual-abuse settlements during Rose's tenure as bishop, both of which have previously been publicized.

A lawsuit against the Rev. Donald Heydens was settled for $5,000 in 1994. A 1995 lawsuit against the Rev. Joseph Kenshol later was settled for an undisclosed amount, though Kent County Circuit Court and the Michigan Court of Appeals dismissed the claim, Tully said. He said the diocese settled to avoid the expense of a state Supreme Court appeal.

The diocese is investigating another abuse allegation made within the past month, involving a now-deceased priest who was in the diocese about 40 years ago, Rose said. He said details are still sketchy and he expects a report in a week or two on whether the charges were substantiated.

The diocese also has paid therapy costs for a number of other people who have alleged abuse, in some cases when charges could not be substantiated, Rose and Tully said.

Rose said he did not know how much the diocese has paid or to how many people. In some cases, priests paid some of the costs, he said.

"We just have a policy in the diocese that any victim is entitled to assistance," Tully said.

Sullivan's victim said she hopes her story will help others who have suffered from abuse and help the church prevent future abuses.

She said the "extraordinary power and privilege and secrecy" the church gives priests makes their followers vulnerable. Lay people need to be given more power to hold priests accountable and make decisions, she said.

"Our claim was never against the faithful, the people who trusted and loved their faith. Learning about this and purging these awful things can in fact make their faith more abundant and more treasured."


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