Jury Decides against Priest in Defamation Case
By Ryan J. Foley
August 4, 2005
A jury on Thursday decided against a Catholic priest who said he was falsely accused of sexual abuse by a former altar boy, concluding the allegations were substantially true.
After two hours of deliberations, the jury rejected claims that the 26-year-old man had defamed the Rev. Gerald Vosen of Baraboo by concocting the story of abuse to explain to his parents why he was gay.
John Casey, the man's attorney, said his client's credibility was attacked for more than a year, but it took a jury only two hours to substantiate his claims that the priest abused him while an altar boy and student at a Catholic elementary school in Janesville.
"My client has been vindicated. Now the public knows he is not a liar," Casey said. "But he will never have his childhood back."
Vosen, 71, had sued the man last year claiming the allegations were false. His attorney asked jurors to award the priest $1.1 million in punitive damages. Vosen's attorney, Patrick McDonald, said the jury may have been prejudiced by news coverage of the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal.
"It's not only a disappointment but a surprise that the jury would have returned the verdict they did," he said.
McDonald had argued the man concocted the story that he was abused over a two-year period while a student and altar boy at St. John Vianney in Janesville to help explain to his parents why he was gay.
After his parents reported the allegations to the Madison Diocese in 2003, "a small lie mushroomed into a horrific calamity," McDonald said Thursday in his closing argument.
Casey said his client was a fifth- and sixth-grader when he was repeatedly sexually abused by Vosen, who warned him not to tell anybody about the abuse. He said the man finally told his sister of the abuse four years before he told his parents, and his sexual orientation had nothing to do with the allegations.
Vosen's lawyer had attacked the man's credibility, saying his story changed and was contradicted by other evidence. He said the man changed his mind on when the abuse began, how often the abuse occurred and when he realized it was wrong.
The jury needed only to find that the allegations were substantially true to decide in the man's favor.
Casey said the decision clears the way for his client to ask the local district attorney to press criminal charges in the case. McDonald said he doubted any prosecutor would take up a case filled with inconsistencies.
The man hugged his lawyer and his parents after the decision but left the courtroom without speaking to reporters.
The decision stunned Vosen's supporters, who had attended the four-day trial in support of the longtime priest. They filled the courtroom to stand behind the man they described as gentle and caring.
"This whole thing was a hoax," said David Seep, 28, of Reedsburg. "How could they lie under oath? Their whole family is going to hell."
McDonald said he and Vosen would look at whether to challenge the decision. Vosen remains on paid leave from the diocese.
A cloud of suspicion has surrounded Vosen since a woman at a hearing on a clergy sex abuse bill at the state Capitol two years ago said the priest had abused her brother during the 1970s. The diocese suspended Vosen, even though the woman's brother denied he ever was abused, and launched an investigation.
Bishop Robert Morlino placed Vosen on administrative leave in February 2004, saying the investigation confirmed at least one of three victims' allegations was credible. The diocese has referred the case to the Vatican for possible discipline against Vosen.
The Wisconsin Chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests had feared a ruling in favor of Vosen could discourage victims of sexual abuse from coming forward.
Group spokeswoman Mary Guentner said she hoped the verdict would instead encourage more victims to report abuse.
"This priest tried to intimidate this victim," Guentner said.
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