Church Settles Suit
BR Diocese to Rename High School

By Barbara Schlichtman
Advocate [Baton Rouge, Louisiana]
November 11, 2004

The Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge announced Wednesday that it has settled a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse by the late former Bishop Joseph V. Sullivan and that the prominent high school bearing his name would be renamed.

The lawsuit was filed in 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge in April by a man who claims the sexual abuse occurred 29 years ago and that the repressed memory of the abuse resurfaced in June 2003, diocese attorney Charlie Cusimano said.

Sullivan was bishop from 1974 until his death in 1982. The alleged incident occurred in 1975 when the victim was 17, Bishop Robert Muench said.

"I am truly sorry for the pain this allegation causes those in our church, particularly those harmed," Muench said.

No details surrounding the alleged abuse were available because the lawsuit was sealed by state District Judge Curtis Calloway, Cusimano said.

Muench said the diocese intends to honor the plaintiff's steadfast request for anonymity by not providing details about how Sullivan and the plaintiff knew each other.

The lawsuit was settled "amicably and reasonably," Muench said. Muench has offered to meet with the victim, but the offer has not been accepted. The diocese has also offered counseling assistance.

Students and faculty at Bishop Sullivan High School heard of the sexual abuse claim Tuesday morning from Muench. The school will undergo a name change beginning with the 2005-2006 school year. The new name will be selected by Feb. 28.

Cusimano said he believed the out-of-court resolution was reasonable in that both sides faced risks had the lawsuit gone to court.

The diocese was first contacted by the plaintiff's attorney in April. Shortly thereafter, the plaintiff's attorney filed the lawsuit to prevent losing the sexual abuse claim to the statute of limitations, Cusimano said.

The statute of limitations is one year. However, the plaintiff could argue that the statute of limitations did not begin until the memory resurfaced in June 2003, Cusimano said.

"Courts really haven't determined whether repressed memory is a defense to statute of limitations," Cusimano said.

The diocese worked with the plaintiff and conducted its investigation throughout the summer, and took sworn testimony from the plaintiff in September.

Cusimano said the plaintiff's attorney did not force the diocese or its insurance company to file an answer to the lawsuit because the diocese was cooperating.

After receiving the transcript of the victim's testimony, the case went to mediation the first week in October, and a conditional resolution was reached, Cusimano said.

The District Attorney's Office was notified of the claim, even though the accused is dead, Muench said.

Following diocese protocol, the claim was presented to the diocese's Independent Review Board. The board is composed of experts in the child-care, therapy, health and legal professions.

The board determined that the claim was "serious and deserving of careful attention," according to the diocese statement.

Sullivan was ordained in 1945. He came to Baton Rouge from the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese where he had been auxiliary bishop. News reports say that Sullivan was the first Kansas City native to be named a bishop.

Sullivan was the second bishop for the Baton Rouge diocese, succeeding Bishop Robert E. Tracy.

Upon hearing Sullivan's name Wednesday, several people described him as controversial but refused to comment for publication about Sullivan's legacy in the diocese.

Articles after his death describe Sullivan as a staunch conservative.

In 1978, Sullivan issued a letter saying any Catholic in the Baton Rouge diocese who consents to, participates in or advises an abortion would be excommunicated, according to news reports.

In 1979, Sullivan was in the news for prohibiting the Rev. Charles Curran, a Catholic theologian, from speaking at the LSU Catholic Student Center because the speaker's views varied with those of the church. Curran was a professor of moral theology who differed with the church on topics such as abortion and divorce, according to news reports. At the time Sullivan said he did not mind if Curran spoke elsewhere, but he did not want to give the impression of church approval.

Sullivan also ignited controversy at LSU by removing the Claretian Fathers from their ministry at the LSU Catholic Student Center in 1979.

In news reports, Sullivan refused to state specific reasons and called his decision a "judgment of finality" that could only be overturned at the pope's request.

"The Catholic Church is not a democracy. That they must understand. If they want a democracy, they should be in another church. No one is forcing them to be Catholic," Sullivan said in a 1979 interview with The Advocate.

Muench said he does not know of any other allegations, made either to Muench or previous bishops, that implicate Sullivan with sexual abuse.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.