4 Claim Priest Abuse in Suit
Class-Action Status against Archdiocese Sought

By Kim Kozlowski
Detroit News
May 13, 2004

Four men alleging sexual abuse by local Catholic priests filed a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Detroit Wednesday, arguing the church failed to take steps to protect them, when they were children, and other youngsters.

Attorneys representing the men are asking the court to certify the lawsuit as a class-action suit, meaning others could join and the court would deal only with the issues common to all members of the class. It is believed to be the first suit in Michigan seeking class-action status stemming from the sex abuse scandal.

The archdiocese reacted by characterizing the press conference called to announce the lawsuit as a ploy to raise the profile of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a nonprofit victims group supporting the four men. SNAP retorted that it wouldn't be exposing priests if the church hadn't covered up and moved the clergymen from parish to parish for years. "The purpose is to expose perpetrators so that other victims who have been harmed can know they are not alone, and it is safe to come forward," said Barbara Blaine, SNAP founder, who held a press conference Wednesday outside the Wayne County Circuit Court with other alleged victims.

"The church should be grateful we are exposing the evil that has festered in the church for decades."

The suit aims to primarily hold the archdiocese responsible for conspiracy, said Southfield attorney Justin Ravitz. But it names 16 priests as co-conspirators.

Among them: * The Rev. C. Richard Kelly, Jr., who allegedly abused former altar boy Timothy Hassett when Hassett was in third grade at St. Mary in Redford. In February, the archdiocese placed Kelly on leave from St. Thomas a'Becket Parish in Canton Township because of an allegation of sexual misconduct from the early years of his ministry. Kelly vehemently denied the allegation in a letter to parishioners.

* The Rev. Lawrence Edwards, reportedly now dead, allegedly abused an anonymous Troy man when he was 10 while at St. Mary in Milford.

* The Rev. Thomas Physician, who allegedly abused William Johnson between the ages of 14-17 when Johnson was a parishioner at Precious Blood in Detroit. The archdiocese placed Physician, who was retired, on administrative leave Jan. 3.

* The Rev. Robert Burkholder, who allegedly abused John Fruciano beginning at age 10 when Burkholder was at St. Mary in Wayne.

Burkholder spent 30 days in jail in 2002 for sexual misconduct in the 1980s.

Hassett, 41, who for years used drugs and alcohol to cope, said he is proceeding with the lawsuit "to make sure this doesn't happen to anyone else.

"The main reason is to help other people like me to come and get help," he said. "I was afraid to for years."

The suit comes decades after the alleged incidents of abuse in local churches, but following other high-profile payouts across the country.

Lawsuits against other dioceses related to the sex abuse scandal have resulted in hefty payouts: The Archdiocese of Louisville, Ky., last summer agreed to pay $25.7 million to 243 people. The Archdiocese of Boston in September agreed to pay the largest settlement so far: $85 million to more than 550 people.

By contrast, the Archdiocese of Detroit reported earlier this year that it had paid $1.4 million to victims since 1950. A class-action lawsuit, however, could increase that amount.

Archdiocese of Detroit spokesman Ned McGrath said he had not seen the lawsuit, but in a prepared statement, he was critical of SNAP's publicizing of the lawsuit.

"The approach utilized in the filing of this case does appear to be consistent with what SNAP and the attorneys working for them have employed elsewhere around the country: a class-action lawsuit heightens the profile of the advocacy group and at the same time identifies potential clients," McGrath said.

He added that the archdiocese began working with local prosecutors two years ago, and it was commended for its handling of clergy sex abuse cases.

"We have been forthcoming," McGrath said.


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