Lawyer for Church Says He Hid His Own Sexual Abuse by Priest

By Laurie Goodstein
New York Times
November 25, 2003

For five years, Robert P. Scamardo defended the Roman Catholic Diocese of Galveston-Houston against lawsuits by people who claimed to have been sexually abused by priests.

As general counsel, he vigorously resisted accusers, he said, fending off their lawsuits and collaborating with church officials to send them away quietly, with as little money as possible.

He said he felt good about his job until one negotiating session with a gray-haired woman who said, through tears, that the molesting she suffered long ago was still causing her depression, marital strife and sexual problems. "You can't possibly understand," she insisted.

Mr. Scamardo said he desperately wanted to tell her, "Yes, I do."

Of the thousands of people who have fought the church over sexual abuse charges, Mr. Scamardo is the only one known to have fought from both sides.

While representing the church as a trusted insider, Mr. Scamardo said, he was secretly struggling to cope with his own sexual abuse as a teenager by a priest and a lay youth minister. The conflict between his inner and outer selves brought anguish, thoughts of suicide and finally a confrontation with the diocese. When he sought compensation from the church as an abuse victim this year, he came up against a bishop and lawyers aggressively guarding church assets.

In an interview in Houston, Mr. Scamardo provided a window into how church lawyers worked to deter lawsuits, minimize the church's payouts, limit coverage for therapy and keep any settlements secret.

It was always the church, he said, that insisted on inserting confidentiality clauses in the settlements -- never the victims, as many bishops have contended. He said that while the eruption of the scandal last year had made bishops more likely to express compassion toward victims, the church's lawyers were still playing hardball behind the scenes.

And he said he was certain there were many more abusive priests and victims than have become public.

Mr. Scamardo said he left his post when the dissonance between his past and his present became so unbearable he began to think of suicide. Three weeks ago, after months of wrangling, he signed a financial settlement with the Diocese of Austin, where he said the abuse occurred.

"If they're playing the game with me like that this year, then nothing has changed," Mr. Scamardo said.

Bishop Gregory M. Aymond of Austin declined to give an interview, but said in a statement: "I deeply regret any pain Mr. Scamardo may have suffered and pray that he will know God's healing. While we cannot change the past, the diocese has established extensive programs to prevent sexual abuse in our parishes and schools in the future."

The statement said the diocese had paid for "extensive counseling for Mr. Scamardo."

In the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, where Mr. Scamardo worked, Msgr. Frank H. Rossi, the chancellor who hired him, and Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza declined to comment, saying they wanted to protect his confidentiality as a former employee.

Annette Gonzales Taylor, the director of communications for the diocese, said that she had worked with Mr. Scamardo and considered him a friend but that she and others had no idea he was carrying such a burden until soon before he left.

"Robert is a very good man, and he was a very valued employee here," she said. "We were heartbroken, devastated when we learned from him what had happened."

Mr. Scamardo, 44, said he still struggled not to feel ashamed about what happened when he was 15 and the newly elected president of the Catholic Youth Organization for the Diocese of Austin.

He was invited to a convention of the Texas Catholic Conference in San Antonio and, he said, did not raise questions when the Rev. Dan Delaney, director for youth ministry for the Austin Diocese, arranged for them to share a hotel room. That night, Mr. Scamardo said, he awoke to find Father Delaney on top of him, masturbating him. Mr. Scamardo said he ran into the hallway. The priest never mentioned the matter, he said.

Mr. Scamardo said he soon told James Reese, the lay youth minister at Sacred Heart Parish in Austin, who listened sympathetically -- then sexually abused him on several occasions.

The Diocese of Austin said neither of the men accused of abuse was now in ministry. Reached by telephone in Houston, Mr. Delaney said he remembered Mr. Scamardo "vaguely." Asked whether he had sexually abused him, Mr. Delaney said, "I don't have any comment on that, thank you," and hung up.

In a letter to Mr. Scamardo in March, Bishop Aymond wrote that Mr. Delaney had been laicized by the Vatican in 1987. Mr. Reese was enrolled as a seminarian for the Diocese of Austin as recently as September 2002. But he was dismissed immediately after Mr. Scamardo identified him as one of his abusers, the bishop said.

Mr. Reese, reached by phone in Austin on Saturday, said, "While it may be true we did have a relationship, I don't think it's the way he says."

He added of Mr. Scamardo: "I hope he heals, I really do. I've been praying a lot for him. But any explanation I might give might deter from that healing because I don't remember the events the way he does."

For 27 years, Mr. Scamardo said, he went into "shutdown" about the abuse, telling no one else. Instead, he studied to be a priest at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, but dropped out a year before ordination when he became aware he could never be celibate. He worked on Capitol Hill, married and had three children but never told his wife about the abuse. He went to law school, was hired by a firm in Houston and was headed for partner, he said.

In 1997, Monsignor Rossi, an old seminary classmate, recruited him to work as general counsel in the Galveston-Houston diocese. Mr. Scamardo said he was idealistic about serving the church but blind to "something unhealthy" about his decision.

Church lawyers at that time, he said, were reeling from a recent jury decision in Dallas to award $119.5 million to 11 plaintiffs who had been sexually abused by a priest, Rudolph Kos. The lesson for the church's lawyers, Mr. Scamardo said, was "these are not the sort of cases you want to get in front of a jury."

So, he said, he devoted about half of his time as general counsel to negotiating with sexual abuse victims, investigating their claims and finding ways to limit the church's liability. He estimated that he handled cases involving 20 to 30 victims but said he dealt only with those who retained lawyers and sued. There were more victims who contacted the chancery without intending to sue, he said.

The Diocese of Galveston-Houston has not made public how many of its priests have been accused, said Mrs. Gonzales Taylor, the director of communications. Research published in The New York Times in January found five accused priests in that diocese, but Mr. Scamardo said he was aware of more.

This is true for many dioceses, said some church officials who were unwilling to be named but who knew partial results of a survey the bishops have commissioned to assess the extent of the abuse. That report is to be released in February.

Mr. Scamardo said that throughout the 1990's, Bishop Fiorenza consistently removed priests credibly accused of abuse. But, Mr. Scamardo said, the bishop told parishes only that priests were leaving for "personal reasons" or "medical leave of absence."

"They assume that all sorts of people are going to fabricate claims, as if everyone wants to be known as a sexual abuse victim," Mr. Scamardo said.

Most victims' cases were beyond the statute of limitations, so the diocese could offer little to settle a case, perhaps just the cost of a short course of therapy, he said. If that failed, he said, church lawyers would petition to have cases dismissed on First Amendment grounds, arguing that the government must not meddle in church matters.

The settlements always had a confidentiality clause. Like other diocesan lawyers, Mr. Scamardo said, he often added aclause specifying how much the victim would have to pay the church for breaking confidentiality.

The standard approach was to offer to pay only for the victims' counseling, and even this came with strings attached, he said. The diocese kept a list of preferred therapists and limited the number of sessions it would pay for. A year of counseling was considered generous, Mr. Scamardo said. He said he found that unfair, saying it had taken three years of counseling before he began to talk about his sexual abuse.

And yet, by all accounts, Mr. Scamardo was an aggressive and successful advocate for the diocese.

George E. Cire, a Houston lawyer who represented a family that sued the church in 2000, said: "Certainly he was not overly sympathetic to the victims. Not that he was overly confrontational with them, but he just didn't give in."

"My guess is he took such a hard stance just to cover up any sympathy he may have been feeling for the victims," Mr. Cire said.

Mr. Scamardo said his anguish built gradually. First there was the gray-haired woman. Then a victim he had met committed suicide. In June 2002, with the scandal in Boston propelling victims forward, Mr. Scamardo said he got an e-mail message from a man who said he had been abused by Dan Delaney -- the priest in the hotel room.

Mr. Scamardo said it dawned on him then: a man abused by a priest as a teenage boy had spent most of his legal career defending priests who abused teenage boys.

By August 2002, Mr. Scamardo said, he was thinking about suicide. A victim walked out of a mediation session, and Mr. Scamardo said he felt "like the enemy."

In September, he wrote long letters to Bishops Fiorenza and Aymond revealing his abuse. He asked Bishop Aymond to help pay for a month at a residential treatment center north of Dallas. He stayed nearly three months, which cost the Austin diocese $33,443.

He went back to work, but felt awkward, he said . While he had been a frequent visitor to Bishop Fiorenza's office, now he could not get in, he said. He declared his intention to resign, and asked for a little time.

Meanwhile, regarding it as a friendly negotiation, Mr. Scamardo wrote the bishop of Austin suggesting a settlement of $437,500 to cover medical bills for him and his family, lost income, pain and suffering.

In a March 25 response, which Mr. Scamardo shared with The Times, Bishop Aymond, who began serving in Austin in 2001, apologized profusely and said he wanted to help. He reminded Mr. Scamardo that his claim was beyond the statute of limitations, and countered with $50,000 plus medical expenses for 12 months.

Since insurance would not cover it, the bishop warned, "any financial settlement would be taken from the money that is given by the parishioners on Sunday in the collection."

Mr. Scamardo, angry and offended, began looking for a lawyer. Within 10 days, the Diocese of Galveston-Houston hired a new general counsel. Mr. Scamardo quit in May.

On Oct. 29, he signed a settlement with the Diocese of Austin for $250,000. He has opened his own law practice in Houston. He says he does not think he can emotionally handle sexual abuse cases but may serve as an expert witness in trials.

He said he prayed and believed in God "more than ever." But the last time he went to church was on the Feast of the Pentecost in June. "I have a lot of grief because my whole belief system in the church is just gone," he said.


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