By Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer
BURLINGTON - People allegedly sexually abused by priests in the Covington Diocese now are part of what is believed to be the nation's first class-action lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Church.
A muffled cheer rose Wednesday from a crowded courtroom of 40 onlookers - many of whom say priests abused them - when Boone Circuit Judge Jay Bamberger ruled that individual suits against priests could proceed as a class action.
The lawsuit alleges a concerted effort by the Covington Diocese to conceal claims about priests sexually abusing parishioners over the last 50 years. Lawyers contend that the diocese is liable because it allowed priests to maintain roles in churches despite accusations against them.
"We called and sent 100 letters to possible victims," said the plaintiffs' attorney, Stan Chesley. "This is the most difficult case I have ever had in getting people to come to the courtroom - for fear of identification, for fear of harassment, for fear of retaliation."
Bamberger did not hesitate in his judgment: "There is no question in my mind the plaintiffs have a right to class certification," he said.
Lawyers representing victims across the state said they weren't aware of any other such cases certified as a class action.
While the diocese says it has received 158 claims of abuse, Chesley believes that the number of victims who could receive money from any victory in the case is somewhere between 500 and 1,000. He said the church does not have records of all victims. His number includes anyone abused as far back as 1956, when the Diocese of Covington covered an area of Kentucky that included 57 central and eastern Kentucky counties. Much of the diocese was split off into the Lexington Diocese, which was created in 1988. Currently, the Covington Diocese spans 14 counties and includes 89,000 parishioners.
Lexington Attorney Angela Ford, who is representing victims in the Lexington area who claim priests in the old Covington Diocese abused them, said her 24 clients would likely opt out of the class action.
"We are in the final stages of settlement discussions," she said, "so we will not participate in the class unless our settlement talks break down."
The Covington Diocese says that 30 of 372 diocesan priests have sexually abused a minor. Chesley claims that at least 40 priests were accused of abuse.
"The diocese is not proud to be a defendant here," said Carrie Huff, a Chicago attorney representing the Covington Diocese. "The bishop is not proud to be a defendant here. The question is how best to resolve these claims."
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Louisville agreed in June to pay $25.7 million to settle child sexual-abuse allegations made in 240 lawsuits naming 34 priests and other church workers - the second-largest payout in an abuse case for the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.
That case was never certified as a class-action suit. However, in a highly unusual move, attorneys say, settlement talks were conducted as if it had been a class-action suit. The judge decided to group victims together to expedite the settlement process.
After Wednesday's hearing, Huff, representing the Covington Diocese, directed questions to Covington Bishop Roger J. Foys, but added he was out of town and likely not available for comment. He could not be reached.
Diocesan spokesman Tim Fitzgerald released a one-sentence response: "The diocese of Covington continues to believe that a class proceeding is not the appropriate legal channel for addressing these claims."
Bob Steinberg, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, told the judge that diocese documents concerning sex abuse are "incomplete." When Bamberger pressed him on how many documents are missing, Steinberg said "hundreds." He said that 5,000 pages the diocese already turned over to the court are "the tip of the iceberg."
Then, in a moment reminiscent of the Perry Mason TV series, a representative with the state of Kentucky stopped the hearing to deliver documents from Frankfort that outline yet another case of alleged sexual abuse by a former priest.
Steinberg told Bamberger that the documents were subpoenaed from the state because they were not included in church archives. Steinberg said that his firm, Waite, Schneider, Bayless & Chesley, has established a pattern during its investigation: That the Diocese of Covington assigned priests from outside Kentucky to its own churches, despite allegations that those priests were sex offenders.
"Our suit does not focus on the individual actions of the priests, but the actions of the diocese over a period of 50 years and the duty it had to the safety and protection of children," said Steinberg. "There was an epidemic in this diocese. The question is why."
In Cincinnati, the abuse crisis has spawned several lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and individual priests accused of sexual misconduct.
Mason attorney Konrad Kircher said Wednesday he will file another lawsuit today that levels more allegations against Father David Kelley, a Cincinnati priest and a former teacher at Elder High School. Kircher, who sued Kelley last month on behalf of five alleged abuse victims, said the new suit is on behalf of 21 additional victims.
Although no one has yet filed suit seeking class-action status against the Cincinnati Archdiocese, Kircher's new lawsuit means more than 50 men who claim they were abused as children have sued the church.
Dan Horn and Brenna R. Kelly contributed to this report. E-mail email@example.com
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