Sunday, June 09, 2002

Ky. dioceses lead U.S. in priest abuse lawsuits

48 accusations involve one clergyman

By Susan Vela,, The Cincinnati Enquirer
and The Associated Press

        LOUISVILLE — More than 120 lawsuits have been filed against Roman Catholic dioceses in Kentucky, the most in any state, and nearly 50 of the alleged victims have claimed sexual abuse by the same priest.

        “I don't know why Kentucky seems to have generated so many lawsuits,” said the Rev. William F. Cleves, vice chancellor of Thomas More College in Crestview Hills.

        “I'm concerned for the victims. ... Second, I'm concerned for the priests that aren't involved in this. People who are innocent are often looked at with suspicion. In this case, because we're wearing a clerical collar.”

        But Jim Strader, included in the scores of plaintiffs who have sued since mid-April, wouldn't be surprised if the number of victims is twice what the lawsuits imply.

        “The church hierarchy here continually moved these priests to different parishes, even though they were known as pedophiles, rather than dealing with the issue,” said Mr. Strader, who has outdoors shows on Louisville radio and cable television. “Now all that evil is coming home to roost.”

        The Archdiocese of Louisville, which includes 220,000 parishioners in 24 counties, has been named in 119 of the 122 lawsuits. Forty-eight of them, including Mr. Strader's, allege abuse by the Rev. Louis E. Miller over a 45-year span. Father Miller has denied the accusations, including one from his nephew.

        Three of the lawsuits allege sexual abuse by Lexington Bishop J. Kendrick Williams when he was a priest in Louisville. Bishop Williams has denied the allegations and is on administrative leave until an investigation is complete.

        Tim Fitzgerald, spokesman for the Diocese of Covington, stressed that the Archdiocese of Louisville is drawing the lawsuits. The commonwealth is split into the Archdiocese of Louisville and the dioceses of Covington, Lexington and Owensboro.

        “I don't want to talk about another diocese or archdiocese,” he said. “There is a lot of interest in this topic right now as there is in Wall Street behavior, accounting firms and FBI whistle-blowers.”

        In Ohio, there have been two lawsuits filed since January, against the dioceses of Youngstown and Toledo.

        Catholics across the nation are eager for this week's bishops' convention in Dallas. Monsignor Roger J. Foys of Steubenville, whom the pope has recommended to become the Covington diocese's next bishop, will attend.

        The bishops are to vote on a national policy for disciplining priests who molest children.

        “We all are looking to that meeting ... to solve that situation,” Mr. Fitzgerald said.

        James Francis, a University of Kentucky associate professor of classics with an emphasis on Christianity, said the number of lawsuits in Louisville is “shocking,” though understandable.

        “The Catholic population is most concentrated around Louisville and Northern Kentucky,” said Mr. Francis, who was a Benedictine monk for 12 years.

        “Most of the priests who have been accused are quite old. If the accusations are true, you've got 30 and 40 years worth of victims of serial pedophiles coming out all at once. The cases could get larger.”

        Nearly all of the plaintiffs in the Louisville cases are represented by attorney William McMurry, who has been a vocal advocate for his clients.

        He said the fact that victims have not only sued, but also agreed to media interviews, has probably brought out some people who would otherwise have hung back.

        “I'm quite confident that putting the human face on the victim made all the difference in the world,” he said.

        In a counter move, the archdiocese has cited a state law that calls for lawsuits to be sealed if they make child sex abuse allegations more than five years old. Mr. McMurry and the Courier-Journal newspaper argue the law is unconstitutional and are awaiting a judge's ruling on the matter.

        At least 300 civil lawsuits alleging clerical sex abuse have been filed in 16 states since January, when the case of a pedophile priest in Boston spurred claims against Roman Catholic dioceses across America, a review by the Associated Press found.

        Lawyers say the rush of litigation is truly dramatic for such a short time, and that several hundred more cases are being informally mediated between dioceses and accusers.

        Almost 250 of the nation's more than 46,000 Roman Catholic priests have either been dismissed from their duties or resigned since the scandal began in January.

        Beyond the toll in loss of staff and credibility, the financial cost of these cases has never been fully calculated. Estimates of what the church has paid out since the first major scandals broke in the 1980s range from about $300 million to $1 billion.

        At least 73 suits have been filed in Massachusetts, where some of the most notorious abuse cases — involving former priest John Geoghan and the Rev. Paul Shanley — have been winding through the courts. Mr. Geoghan, whose case sparked the crisis, was convicted this year of fondling one boy, though more than 130 people have accused him of molesting them.

        Another 41 claims have been made in New Hampshire, where Bishop John McCormack has been under scrutiny for his former role in supervising accused priests in Boston and for his response to abuse claims when he became head of the Manchester Diocese.

        At least 25 additional lawsuits have been filed in California.

        In states where no new claims have been made, many old suits are pending. The Diocese of Providence, R.I., for example, is a defendant in 38 abuse lawsuits filed before January.


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