Lawsuit Alleges Sex Abuse in 1950s
Defendants Include Priest, 90

By Judy L. Thomas and Matt Stearns
Kansas City Star
June 25, 2002

A California man is suing a retired Roman Catholic priest in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph over sexual abuse allegations dating back 50 years.

Thomas Dorrell alleges in a lawsuit filed Monday that the Rev. Sylvester Hoppe molested him repeatedly from 1951 through 1954, starting when Dorrell was about 12. Hoppe is now 90 and lives with relatives in St. Joseph.

Hoppe could not be reached for comment.

But his attorney, James Wyrsch, said that "Father Hoppe denies the allegations. ... He's been a priest for more than 50 years and never had similar complaints against him."

Dorrell, 62, of Valencia, Calif., alleges the abuse occurred in St. Joseph and at a Boy Scout jamboree in Southern California. Dorrell also is suing the dioceses of Kansas City-St. Joseph and Orange County, Calif., and the archdioceses of St. Louis and Los Angeles, contending that church officials knew about the alleged abuse and conspired to cover it up.

The lawsuit, filed in Orange County Superior Court, seeks unspecified damages.

"He needs to be held accountable," Dorrell said of Hoppe in a recent telephone interview. "I don't care if he's 90 or if he's 103. He needs to pay for what he did."

The Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese investigated the allegations against Hoppe after Dorrell contacted church officials in April. As a result, Hoppe was banned from celebrating Mass publicly and performing other sacraments, the Rev. Patrick Rush, the diocese's vicar general, told The Kansas City Star last month. Rush said then that the diocese had not yet attempted to confirm the veracity of Dorrell's allegations and that the diocese had no previous sexual-abuse allegations on file against Hoppe. Rush said he was not aware of the lawsuit and could not comment on it. He also would not comment further on Hoppe's standing with the diocese, other than to note that Hoppe has long been retired. James Tierney, an attorney for the diocese, said he doubted that a California court would have jurisdiction over the Kansas City diocese and thought the statute of limitations on Dorrell's allegations had long expired. And even if the statute of limitations did not apply, Tierney said, "the diocese would prevail at a trial on the merits."

Maria Schinderle, a spokeswoman for the Diocese of Orange County, said she was not aware of the lawsuit.

"The diocese in Orange was not established until June of 1976," Schinderle said. "The plaintiff's attorney may not have known that. I'm sure when he finds out, they'll dismiss us from the case." Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said he had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment on it. But, he added, the archdiocese had no record that Hoppe had ever applied for temporary faculties as a visiting priest, which is customary for a priest visiting another diocese and wanting to perform public sacraments.

Jim Orso, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, said he did not know why the archdiocese was named in the lawsuit. Dorrell, a Southern California businessman, alleges that the abuse began when he moved into the rectory in St. Joseph, where Hoppe was living. Dorrell told The Star in recent interviews that he stayed with Hoppe because his parents had divorced and his mother wanted Hoppe to take her son, who was then 12, under his wing. During that time, the lawsuit alleges, Hoppe would fondle Dorrell, then have Dorrell do the same to him. The lawsuit also alleges that Hoppe repeatedly asked Dorrell to perform oral sex on him but that Dorrell refused.

"This went on for two years," according to the lawsuit. Hoppe, who was ordained in 1946, has served parishes in Savannah, Tarkio, Excelsior Springs and Norborne in Missouri. The Boy Scouts named a chapel at Camp Geiger near St. Joseph after him. As recently as March, Hoppe concelebrated Mass at St. James Catholic Church in St. Joseph at a Catholic Scouting Religious Awards ceremony.


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