Dismissals Cut Clergy Abuse Suits to 16

By Stephanie Innes
Arizona Daily Star (Tucson)
July 14, 2004

The recent dismissals of three civil actions alleging sexual abuse of children by priests has reduced the number of lawsuits over clergy abuse now pending against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson to 16.

The diocese expects to decide whether it will file for bankruptcy by September.

All the pending lawsuits over clergy abuse against the local church were filed in 2002 after the diocese reached a $14 million settlement - paid for by insurance and diocesan funds - with 10 men who said they were abused by four local priests during the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

The three lawsuits that were dismissed, the most recent on June 28, are:

* A suit filed by a Tucson man and his mother in October 2002 was dismissed without prejudice in February at the request of the plaintiffs.

Plaintiff Philip A. Hower, who was turned down for the priesthood by the local diocese, had argued in his complaint that he was a victim of employment discrimination because he's heterosexual and because he was a "whistle blower" about clergy abuse.

Hower's attorney, Ivan Abrams, said Tuesday that Hower plans to refile his case against the diocese this month under provisions of federal RICO - Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organizations - statutes, which were also cited in his first legal action.

The federal RICO law is a set of statutes that was initially drafted to help prosecutors shut down organized-crime operations, but the law is now being used by some plaintiffs in clergy abuse cases who are arguing the church coverup of the abuse crisis falls under RICO's provisions.

* In April, two sisters who sued the diocese in August 2002 were ordered to pay the local church $4,300 to cover legal costs, and the sisters' lawsuit was dismissed.

Jill Ann Wyatt and Gail Marie Lafnear had argued a local priest, the late Rev. William T. Byrne, triggered a cycle of abuse in their family that the diocese could have prevented.

Byrne, who died of a brain tumor in 1991, was one of four priests named in the civil actions settled in 2002.

Wyatt and Lafnear say Byrne abused the three Medigovich brothers during the 1960s, and by doing so turned the young men into molestors who in turn abused Wyatt and Lafnear - their sisters. Members of the Medigovich family were part of the 2002 settlement.

Wyatt and Lafnear had alleged Byrne molested the brothers regularly in the rectory of Holy Cross Parish in Clifton, often giving them alcohol and allowing them to watch pornographic movies.

According to the two women, the brothers in turn abused their sisters when Wyatt was 10 and Lafnear was 9.

The women said the diocese should have known their brothers would commit sexual abuse against other children as a direct result of the abuse by Byrne.

But Judge Leslie Miller ruled the sisters failed to establish any negligence on the part of the diocese.

* On June 28, Superior Court Judge Charles S. Sabalos dismissed a lawsuit that had been filed in spring 2002 by Christopher Robin Phillip, a Florida resident who said he was abused by Byrne during the 1970s while he was a 13-year-old altar boy at the East Side Our Mother of Sorrows Catholic Church.

Sabalos said there was insufficient evidence to support Phillip's claims that there should be an exception to the state's statute of limitations on filing civil actions. The law prevents victims of child sex abuse from filing lawsuits once they reach age 20.

An Arizona Supreme Court ruling has made an exception to the statute of limitations for any periods when the plaintiff was of "unsound mind," which some attorneys have interpreted to include periods of repressed memory.

But Sabalos ruled Phillip did not prove he met the standards for the exception.

The local church's announcement last month that it may file for federal Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection was in part to ensure that any future plaintiffs whose claims are found to be legitimate are adequately compensated, suggesting the local church anticipates additional legal actions.

The recent discovery that the Rev. Anthony Jablonowski, who ministered at St. Theresa Parish in Patagonia between 1994 and 1997 is now in prison in Wyoming for molesting a 17-year-old boy puts the diocese at an added risk for lawsuits, Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas wrote in a June 24 letter to parishioners.

The letter notified parishioners of credible allegations of child sexual abuse against Jablonowski, as well as allegations against the Rev. Thomas Warren, who ministered in Solomon and Parker during the 1980s and early '90s and is now dead; and the late deacon Ron DeChant, who was assigned to St. Francis de Sales Parish in Tucson between 1981 and 1984.

"Obviously, we are becoming aware of additional allegations against persons who have served in the diocese," Kicanas wrote. "This only reinforces the need to find an orderly way for the diocese to respond justly and equitably to those who have been hurt."

Jablonowski pleaded no contest to the molestation charge in a Platte County, Wyo., courtroom in April.

To date, there have been no claims or lawsuits filed in connection with Jablonowski's service in the Diocese of Tucson, spokesman Fred Allison said Tuesday.


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