Thursday, September 14, 2000

Attorneys argue obligation of insurer in sex-abuse case

Family settled with diocese in son's AIDS death

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Glendale resident Claire Busam said she finally found peace when the Catholic Diocese agreed in 1997 to settle a lawsuit she filed on behalf of her dead son.

        The church has yet to close its books on the case, which began in 1992 when the Busams learned their retarded adult son Joe had contracted AIDS after he was sexually abused for years at Good Shepherd Manor in Wakefield, Ohio. The Catholic Diocese of Columbus eventually agreed to pay an undisclosed amount to end the court fight.

        In oral arguments Wednesday, lawyers for the diocese asked the Ohio Supreme Court to agree that an insurance company, Interstate Fire and Casualty Co., should pay a portion of the settlement. The diocese says its contract with Interstate requires the company pay for “occurrences,” which in this case means the negligent oversight of the Manor.

        “The contract clearly provided coverage,” Robert Schuler, attorney for the diocese, told the justices.

        Clifford C. Masch, an attorney for Interstate, said an occurrence is an unexpected accident that injures someone. Because sex abuse isn't an accident — it is someone's deliberate act — he said Interstate should not have to pay.

        “What this case really brings to the forefront is how to define what is an occurrence,” Mr. Masch said. "Sexual molestation is not an occurrence.”

        The justices appeared hampered by a lack of details about the case.

        “The briefs don't tell us the relationship between the (manor) and the diocese,” Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer said.

        When Justice Andrew Douglas later asked what had happened to the suit, he turned sarcastic when told it had been settled.

        “Oh, well that helps,” Justice Douglas said.

        A New Mexico-based Roman Catholic group, Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd, ran the manor in Wakefield, with the diocese's permission. Court briefs and files show Good Shepherd Manor was a religious care home for 100 men and boys.

        The Busam's wrongful-death lawsuit claimed Joe Busam was abused by several brothers of the order from age 16, when his family entrusted him to the manor, until he died in 1996 of AIDS at age 44.

        Allegations of abuse were first revealed and prosecuted in 1985. The Busams said they didn't know Joe had been abused until 1992, when a test showed he was HIV positive.

        The settlement was meant to put an end to the case. Under its terms, which are still secret, no one admitted any responsibility or wrongdoing.

        Mr. Schuler said the diocese and its primary insurance company, Underwriters at Lloyds, paid the settlement. He said the diocese's dispute with Interstate is the only unresolved matter left in the case.

        Back in Glendale, Ms. Busam said she was surprised to learn her son's case was still being fought in court.

        “I thought it was over,” she said.

        Ms. Busam said all the money from the settlement went into a charitable trust, called the Joe Busam Foundation. The trust provides funding to help run Good Shepherd Manor, now owned by a private corporation formed by several concerned parents.

        She said the foundation also has purchased a home theater system for the residents and some seed money for a new home for the profoundly retarded. She said the home is under construction.

        The court will release its decision in the next three to six months.


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