$1.2 Million Will Be Paid in Abuse Suit

By Lisa Kernek
State Journal-Register
July 22, 2004

The Catholic Diocese of Springfield has agreed to pay $1.2 million to eight men who alleged that a priest sexually abused them as youths in the 1970s.

And in a separate case involving the diocese, a Madison County judge last month dismissed a lawsuit in which a Georgia woman accused a priest of abusing her as a child. The woman, Virginia Galloway, filed court papers last week indicating she will appeal. Neither of the priests serves in the diocese any longer. The Rev. Richard Niebrugge, Galloway's alleged abuser, died in 1983. The lawsuit claimed that Niebrugge sexually abused her for 16 years and made her pregnant in 1977.

The eight men who settled with the diocese accused the Rev. Walter Weerts of abusing them between 1973 and 1980.

Later, in 1986, Weerts pleaded guilty in Adams County to criminal charges of sexual abuse. He was sentenced to six years in prison after admitting he performed sexual acts on three teenage boys ranging in age from 13 to 16. Those victims were separate from the claimants who just settled. Weerts was removed from the priesthood in 1989.

Five of the men receiving the settlement reached this month had filed lawsuits in Madison County in September 2003. The other three men joined the settlement during mediation talks, The Catholic Times diocesan newspaper reported. The abuse allegedly occurred while Weerts was pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Villa Grove, about 50 miles east of Decatur.

The money for the settlement will come from interest on investments and the sale of assets, diocesan spokeswoman Kathie Sass said. No money will be taken from parish collections or from restricted funds or endowments designated for specific purposes, she said.

"It is never our preference," Bishop George Lucas said in The Catholic Times, "to be in any adversarial relationship in court with any person who has been harmed by someone in the church.

"The process of mediation makes it possible for us to relate respectfully with one another, with the hope that healing may take place for those who have been abused and their families."

Lucas met with the eight men, Sass added.

The men's Collinsville attorney, Jeff Ezra, said Wednesday they "understood that it was important that the diocese recognized that this occurred and to stop it from occurring to other individuals."

Meanwhile, Galloway's lawsuit against the diocese, filed in January, was dismissed in June by Madison County Circuit Judge Phillip Kardis.

Her attorney, Rex Carr of East St. Louis, said lawyers for each side differed over whether Galloway still had the statutory right to sue, 21 years after the alleged abuse ended.

Carr said Wednesday that Galloway didn't know until 2003 that all of her mental problems and difficulties in life were caused by the priest.

In her suit, Galloway alleged that Niebrugge began abusing her in 1967 when she was 10 years old, that she became pregnant with his child in 1977 and that the abuse ended with his death in 1983. The abuse allegedly occurred in Madison and St. Clair counties.

Galloway raised the child she claims Niebrugge fathered, Carr said.

Carr filed papers indicating he would appeal the case in state appellate court in Mount Vernon.

In February, the Springfield diocese announced a $3 million settlement with 28 victims of childhood sexual abuse by clergy.


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