Tucson Diocese Settles for $1.8M
Yuma teacher molested 5 girls, families contend

By Stephanie Innes
Arizona Daily Star
August 15, 2003

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson has reached a $1.8 million out-of-court settlement with the families of five girls who say they were sexually abused by a former Catholic schoolteacher.

Diocese of Tucson spokesman Fred Allison confirmed the amount of the settlement Thursday, adding that the settlement cost was entirely paid for by the diocese's insurance company, The Ordinary Mutual Insurance Co., which is a risk-retention group created and owned by 12 dioceses in the Western United States, including Tucson.

The settlement relates to accusations that Phillip Gregory Speers molested girls in the second-grade class he was teaching during the 1999-2000 school year at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School in Yuma. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson stretches across nine counties, including Yuma.

Speers continues to deny the accusations against him. His supporters, who include his family and a group of Catholics in Tucson, say he is the victim of church hysteria over the recent national scandal of sexual abuse.

The 31-year-old Speers, who was convicted of having child pornography last year, is currently on criminal trial in Yuma in the alleged molestations. He is appealing his conviction of having child pornography.

Speers, a Tucson native who attended Salpointe Catholic High School and the University of Arizona, faces life in prison if he's convicted of the current charges against him.

The settlement of the Speers case leaves the diocese facing nine other pending civil actions, all of them related to accusations of abuse by clergy members and seeking unspecified amounts of money.

"The blessing of the settlement in the Speers case is that settlement came within the parameters of the insurance coverage," Diocese of Tucson Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas said Thursday. "That isn't true for the cases coming up. We wish to heal the hurt and if feasible reach settlements that will address the pain. But there are limits.; The diocese does not have unlimited resources."

Last year an out-of-court settlement with 10 men was estimated to be as high as $16 million. The 10 said they were abused by four members of the local clergy during the 1960s, '70s and '80s. Diocese officials would not say how much of last year's settlement was covered by the various insurers that were affiliated with the diocese during the times of the abuse alleged in the lawsuits.

But diocese officials have said publicly that their hopes of being debt-free by 2009 are now no longer realistic as a result of the legal actions.

Attorneys for the local diocese stressed that the settlement over the Speers case has no bearing on the criminal case against the former schoolteacher, nor does it imply a belief or opinion about Speers' innocence or guilt.

"The agreement was reached to bring closure for the families involved," says a joint statement from the diocese and lawyers for the girls' families.

The agreement includes settlement of all claims against the diocese; St. Francis of Assisi Church and School; retired Bishop Manuel D. Moreno; Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas; Monsignor Richard O'Keeffe, the former administrator of St. Francis of Assisi Parish; and The Ordinary Mutual.

The claims were made in a civil lawsuit filed last year by the parents of four of the children on their behalf, and claims communicated by the parents of the fifth child, though those parents never joined the lawsuit. In the suit, the families said the diocese and other defendants should have known Speers was a molester, and that they failed to adequately supervise him.

The suit said Speers "emotionally manipulated" the girls and then began molesting them. Lawyers for the diocese say the payment of the $1.8 million is "not an admission of liability or fault by the diocese." At the request of the parents and their attorneys, the amounts of individual settlements will not be made public.

Allison emphasized that the diocese took all the proper steps in removing Speers from teaching as soon as it became aware of the accusations. The diocese placed Speers on administrative leave in May 2000 when it became aware of the allegations against him, Allison said. Speers' contract was not renewed.

Diocese Audit Completed

Two former FBI agents have completed their audit of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson, and officials here are confident that the results are positive.

"We've been trying to make every effort to restore trust and heal hurt," Tucson Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas said Thursday. "It's encouraging when people from the outside find that the diocese, in both substance and spirit, is in compliance."

The auditors representing the Gavin Group of Boston, James H. Yelvington and Reuben V. Martinez, have been in Tucson since Monday measuring the local diocese's compliance with provisions of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which is the U.S. Catholic Church's policy on sexual abuse.

All 195 Catholic dioceses and Eastern Rite eparchies in the United States will be part of the audit, which was ordered by the U.S. Catholic Church's National Review Board, a group of 13 lay Catholics appointed by Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Upon completion, the national audit will become a public report.

Kicanas said the auditors indicated the local diocese has been taking positive steps in improving its procedures for handling reports of sexual abuse by members of the clergy. He said the auditors in particular singled out Paul N. Duckro, a clinical psychologist who was recently hired to direct the local diocese's new Office of Child, Adolescent & Adult Protection.

Duckro, a professor emeritus at the University of St. Louis, has 12 years' experience working on mental health treatment tailored to religious communities and 20 years' experience in psychosomatic medicine.


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