Sunday, February 1, 2004

500 could be part of suit against Ky. diocese

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The nation's first class-action lawsuit alleging sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests will move forward in Kentucky, with "very few" of the plaintiffs dropping out before Saturday's deadline.

Saturday was the deadline for alleged victims to drop out of the class action in order to pursue individual claims. Those who remain in the class can not bring an individual suit.

Stan Chesley, who brought the suit on behalf of the victims, wouldn't say Saturday exactly how many people are in the class. But lawyers for Chesley's firm have said they expect as many as 500 people represented in the action.

"Very few have opted out," Chesley said Saturday. "And the beauty of a class-action is that it is an open-ended proposition. We don't preclude anyone, so long as they've suffered abuse from a priest since 1956."

The lawsuit, certified as a class action by a judge in October, was filed on behalf of alleged priest molestation victims in the Diocese of Covington since 1956. It claims the diocese mishandled claims against clergymen.

Church leaders are fighting the litigation, working instead to settle individual cases out of court. The diocese said it has received 158 reports of abuse and, since September, has settled with 39 people for a total of $8.3 million, according to Carrie Huff, a Chicago attorney representing the diocese.

A hearing is scheduled for Thursday. No trial date has been scheduled.

The lawsuit comes in a Catholic-rich region hit hard by the abuse scandal that first erupted two years ago in Boston and spread throughout the country. The Archdiocese of Louisville reached a $25.7 million settlement with 243 victims in June. In November, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati agreed to establish a $3 million victim compensation fund. That action was part of a historic criminal plea bargain agreement, making Cincinnati's diocese the first Catholic organization to accept criminal responsibility for not reporting priest sex abuse.

The Kentucky class action is trying to accomplish more, such as psychological screening of all priests, opening diocesan records of abuse reports, hiring an outside monitor for abuse cases and starting a formal program for employees and parishioners to report incidents to diocesan authorities.

E-mail The Associated Press contributed.

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