Sunday, April 6, 2003

Priest's plea is just a start

Victims want admission from church

By Lori Burling
The Associated Press

LOUISVILLE - Sexual abuse victims of a retired Roman Catholic priest said his guilty plea is a first step in dealing with a scandal that has for some shattered the image of the church. But beyond the priest's admission of sexual misconduct, they are looking for an acknowledgment from the church itself.

"We have to rebuild the trust one relationship at a time," said Brian Reynolds, chancellor and executive director of the Archdiocese of Louisville, which is facing more than 200 civil lawsuits claiming sexual abuse. "There's no question that we need to respond to these victims, we have to re-earn that trust."

Victims say part of rebuilding that trust is for the church to admit it was aware of sexual abuse incidents, but never reported them to authorities. That's what hundreds of plaintiffs claim in the lawsuits filed in Jefferson County Circuit Court since April 2002.

The Rev. Louis E. Miller, 72, of Louisville, pleaded guilty Monday to 44 counts of indecent and immoral practices with another and six counts of sexual abuse, involving 21 victims. He faces 14 sexual misconduct charges, involving eight victims, in neighboring Oldham County.

Miller is the first of four priests or former priests who are facing criminal charges in the state. Dozens are accused in the wave of lawsuits.

"Miller's plea is only a start. The church has to be held accountable," said Louisville businessman Timothy Baker, 54, who was one of Miller's victims. "After I gave my deposition, I started having compassion for Miller. He wanted out of the ministry, and nobody would help - not even the church."

A journal Miller kept while seeking therapy for his sexual disorder revealed that the priest had abused several children and that he had asked former archbishops for help.

The current archbishop, Thomas C. Kelly, has said that after he learned of Miller's problem, he banned him from public ministry in 1990. Kelly came to Louisville in the early 1980s. Most of the sexual abuse allegations occurred in the 1960s and 1970s.

Reynolds said Kelly and the church hope settling the lawsuits will show the community that they are taking responsibility.

"We believe the mediation process will give victims and survivors a feeling of accountability," said Reynolds, who noted that the church has settled five lawsuits filed since April 19, 2002, three of which accuse Miller of abuse. Terms of the settlements were not disclosed.

However, Reynolds also noted that settling the suits could take a toll on the local Catholic church, which in the last month has ordered salary and hiring freezes. Some of the plaintiffs have asked for millions of dollars, which Reynolds says the church could not afford to pay to each plaintiff.

"The current economy and the civil litigation has caused an economic strain and could cause a reduction of services and staff," Reynolds said. "The concern I have is that the people who are fully innocent are being penalized."

But Baker said it's not about the money. "We want reform and accountability," he said.

Baker, several other victims and their attorney, William McMurry of Louisville, plan to ask for some changes they have developed during their mediation with the church.

"The church needs a 'safe touch' program. It's important that children know what inappropriate touch is and know where to go to report it," Baker said.

Reynolds said that all schools and day cares within the archdiocese currently have such a program in their curriculum. He said it fully explains inappropriate touch and what children should report to authorities. In the fall, all employees and volunteers will undergo a training session in understanding and teaching the curriculum, Reynolds said.

McMurry, who represents more than 200 of the plaintiffs in lawsuits, said his clients would also like to see a lay review board developed that would have veto power over the priest personnel board and periodic evaluations of priests and new priests.

"I believe that at the appropriate time during the mediation process there will be non-economic demands made," McMurry said.

Meanwhile, Miller's case isn't over. Sentencing is scheduled for May 27. Miller faces one to 10 years in prison for each count of indecent and immoral practices and one to five years for each count of sexual abuse.

"I want to see him in prison until he dies," Baker said. "I think they've discussed home incarceration, but that's not going to stop him from hurting the paperboy or the Girl Scout selling cookies."

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