Class Action Sought in Orphanage Lawsuit
Sisters of Charity oppose request

By Gregory A. Hall
July 23, 2005

Class-action status is being sought for a lawsuit filed by about 50 people who allege they were abused as children while living at Roman Catholic orphanages in Jefferson County.

In a filing in Jefferson Circuit Court, attorney William McMurry said he's seeking to expand the suit because he and his plaintiffs believe there are at least several hundred other victims.

Judge Denise Clayton will consider the request at a hearing Monday.

A class-action designation would allow victims to make a claim without being publicly identified, as they would be if they filed their own suit. It also would lead to advertising that would notify former orphanage residents -- who may live across the country and not know of the litigation -- of their rights, McMurry said.

McMurry, working with attorney Ann Oldfather, represented 243 plaintiffs who settled with the Archdiocese of Louisville for $25.7 million in 2003 over sexual abuse by parish priests and others.

The pending suit -- filed a year ago -- against the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and the Archdiocese of Louisville's Catholic Charities, alleges sexual abuse and other physical abuse during about 50 years, primarily at three orphanages.

The St. Thomas orphanage near Anchorage, the St. Vincent orphanage in Clifton and the St.Thomas-St.Vincent orphanage were operated by Catholic Charities and staffed by the order of religious sisters.

The combined orphanage, created after a 1952 merger, closed in 1983.

The suits allege abuse by several nuns, volunteers at the orphanage and the late Rev. Herman J. Lammers, who was director of Catholic Charities from 1939-76 and lived at St. Thomas.

The Sisters of Charity oppose making the case a class-action lawsuit, spokeswoman Diane Curtis said.

"We are saddened by this latest development because our hope is that a respectful process would take place where each person could be heard and treated as an individual," said a statement from the order released by Curtis. "Such an approach would seem more compassionate."

Archdiocese spokeswoman Cecelia Price said it does not comment on pending litigation.

McMurry filed the request to pursue class-action status in the case on July 14. As part of that motion, he also seeks to add two more plaintiffs, which would bring the total to 50.

In an interview, he said that seeking class-action status is aimed mainly at settling questions about the legal deadline for plaintiffs to file.

His initial filing in the case, on behalf of five biological sisters and two others who say they were abused, was July 15, 2004. The state's statute of limitations says plaintiffs generally have a year to file suit from the time they are aware they have a potential case. In the year since the initial filing, 41 people have joined the suit. The last person formally added as a plaintiff was Michael Cundiff, now 40, who claims that Sisters Eva Marie and Joseph Michael abused him in the 1960s and 1970s at the orphanage.

If Judge Clayton allows McMurry to pursue a class-action designation, she later would have to decide whether to approve grouping accusers as a class -- as was done by a Boone Circuit Court judge in an abuse case against the Diocese of Covington.

That case was the first against the Catholic church in the United States to be certified as a class-action. A judge this month gave initial approval to a settlement in which the diocese agreed to pay $40 million to abuse victims. Money not claimed by victims would revert back to the diocese.

As part of the settlement, $80 million more could come from insurance payouts, which could make for a $120 million total -- a record for a Roman Catholic diocese in the United States.

More plaintiffs

The two additional plaintiffs who McMurry is seeking to add are James Matthews and Donald W. Cox.

Matthews, now 56, claims that Lammers and a Sister Madeline abused him in the 1950s. Cox, now 54, claims that unnamed nuns and a "visiting priest" abused him.

The class also could include two men whose attorney filed a separate case on their behalf:

Richard D. Lauersdorf claims that he has "repressed memory of the sexual molestation and abuse inflicted upon him" by nuns at the St. Thomas-St. Vincent Orphanage.

Lauersdorf was at the St. Thomas and combined St. Thomas-St. Vincent home in the late 1950s and early 1960s, according to records in the case.

Richard Patrick DeLewis also claims that nuns beat and abused him when he was a ward of Catholic Charities at St. Thomas-St. Vincent from 1962 to 1969.

Attorney Bixler Howland, the attorney for Lauersdorf and DeLewis, declined to comment on McMurry's motion.

"Whatever I have to say, I'll say Monday," he said.

McMurry's plaintiffs are being deposed through the end of September, and the attorneys are in the process of scheduling a deposition for Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly.


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