Monday, March 1, 2004

Church abuse response varies

Strategies differ between dioceses

By Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Libby Jones of Lexington was so pleased with how the Covington Diocese responded to her sexual abuse claim that she contemplated uprooting her family and moving to Northern Kentucky.

Bruce Gehring of Green Township went to the Cincinnati Archdiocese with his sexual abuse claim, but left feeling victimized twice - once by an abusive priest and a second time by church lawyers who vowed to fight his claim.

These individual experiences help illustrate the different approach two dioceses, divided only by a river, have used to deal with the sex-abuse crisis, say victims and lawyers.

The numbers further illustrate the gap. The Covington Diocese has settled 39 claims since September for $8.3 million, according to a Feb. 20 report. More settlements are expected.

The Cincinnati Archdiocese, by contrast, has used a legal strategy to get at least seven suits representing 58 alleged victims thrown out of court. And the archdiocese has told those plaintiffs that they cannot share in a $3 million fund for southwestern Ohio sex-abuse victims if they appeal the judges' decision.

Cincinnati's $3 million fund would be, if all identified victims participated, split in increments determined by the fund's administrator between 188 victims for an average of $15,957 per victim. That's less than 10 percent of the payments made per victim since September in Covington.

Cincinnati Archdiocese spokesman Dan Andriacco said one couldn't draw conclusions from looking at just the numbers. And archdiocese attorneys point out Covington isn't settling all claims.

The Northern Kentucky diocese is vigorously fighting a class-action suit brought by additional victims. The exact number of people who are eligible for the class action has been hotly debated in court and isn't known.

"Covington is being deemed as more progressive because they are paying out more money," Andriacco said. "Sure, we want to be compassionate to victims, but passing out more money doesn't mean they are compassionate. You can't measure it through money."

Attorney Barb Bonar of Covington, who represents alleged sex-abuse victims in Covington and Cincinnati, said the different philosophies are about more than money, and it is obvious when she negotiates on her clients' behalf.

"Cincinnati has not yet established the type of outreach my clients find in Covington," said Bonar, who has settled 22 claims with the Covington Diocese and represents Gehring in his claim against the Cincinnati Archdiocese. "In the past, the victims in Cincinnati have been extremely frustrated by the archdiocese defending these claims and forcing them to be dismissed in the court setting."

Gehring said that before he hired Bonar, the archdiocese had exhibited contempt toward his claim.

"Slightly more than 10 years ago, I wrote the archdiocese to offer my assistance as a former victim without raising the interest of the press," he said. "Subsequent meetings with priests in the archdiocese office left a chill down my spine. I felt their disgust at a victim that would dare to come forward to address this issue."

Lawyers for the Cincinnati Archdiocese have successfully argued that many abuse allegations are so old they are barred from court by Ohio's statute of limitations, which typically requires victims to file claims within a year or two of the date the abuse occurred.

Though attorneys say court rulings have somewhat weakened a similar statute of limitations law in Kentucky, the Covington Diocese could have made the same legal argument for every one of the 39 claims it has settled. The Louisville Archdiocese has been successful in getting a handful of claims dismissed by using that legal tactic.

"While I would never advise a client to waive the statute of limitations, we are sensitive to the fact that victims tend to perceive such motions as an attack on their credibility and a rejection of their need for an acknowledgement from the church," said Covington Diocese attorney Carrie Huff of Chicago. "Our strong preference is not to bring such motions unless we have first exhausted all reasonable efforts to resolve the claims in a manner consistent with Bishop Roger Foys' pastoral goals."

Foys said in a written statement that he was meeting his other obligations as a bishop, but that dealing with the sex-abuse issue has become his primary focus. He added that it was important the people of the diocese understand why the sex-abuse allegations are expending diocesan resources.

"My primary goal is to listen to the victims and offer them an apology, consolation and hopefully the beginning of the healing process," Foys said.

Andriacco said church officials in Cincinnati prefer to handle all claims in a pastoral matter but when they are sued, the only appropriate response to the claims is to vigorously defend them in court.

"It is not prudent for the archdiocese to simply and immediately concede to claims that every victim makes," Andriacco said. "We have a financial responsibility to all the people in the archdiocese. It is called good stewardship."

Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarcyzk declined a request for an interview, but in an open letter to parishioners on Wednesday, he said the church had long made it a practice to extend pastoral care to the survivors of child abuse.

"I have met with many victims, and I will meet with any others who wish to meet with me," Pilarcyzk wrote. "In addition, the archdiocese has often paid for counseling to help victims. In some cases the archdiocese also reached settlements."

Cincinnati attorney Konrad Kircher, who represents 75 alleged sex-abuse victims in Ohio, said Pilarcyzk's comments were intended to paint a better picture than what really existed.

"In Cincinnati, we got a 69-year-old Archbishop that is a product of the environment that promoted concealment," said Kircher. "He was in the hierarchy that had a deliberate policy that kept it secret. Foys appears to be from a more progressive generation. They understand what the abuse did and what is needed to heal the people so they can move on."

Andriacco dismissed Kircher's comments as "the sort of rhetoric one would expect to hear from an attorney who would benefit from any settlement."

But many victims who have settled with the Covington Diocese say they wish Foys' model for settling claims would be adopted nationally.

"Foys gets it," Jones said. "You have no idea how hard it is for me to trust a member of the clergy. To me, the way this has been handled is unique. Bishop Foys earned my respect and I do believe he is sincere ... this should be a model for all churches dealing with this problem."



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