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Cutthroat tactics
When dealing with sex-abuse cases against priests, the Catholic Church acts more like a greedy corporation than a spiritual institution

BY KRISTEN LOMBARDI


Blaming rape victims for their own recklessness.

Hiring private investigators to track down incriminating evidence.

Suing victims for slander.

Suing minor victims’ parents for failing to watch over them.

Intimidating witnesses.

Concealing evidence.

Stonewalling court proceedings.

Denying knowledge of abuse — unless the victims can prove otherwise.

In the high-stakes arena of personal-injury lawsuits, bare-knuckle tactics like these are commonplace. But it’s the last thing you might expect from the world’s largest and most powerful spiritual institution. For nearly two decades, however, the Roman Catholic Church has used these very methods in its defense in lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by members of the clergy.

When Bernard Cardinal Law’s attorneys filed pleadings, or formal responses, to the 25 lawsuits charging that he had failed to properly supervise the now-defrocked priest John Geoghan (see " Cardinal Law, the Church, and Pedophilia, " News and Features, March 23), people were shocked by what they said. In court documents filed June 19 at Suffolk Superior Court, Law effectively blames more than a decade of sexual molestation by Geoghan on those who were allegedly victimized — all of them children at the time. The documents assert that " the negligence of the Plaintiff contributed to cause the injury or damage complained of ... " Law acknowledges that he had received a letter as far back as September 1984 " referencing allegations of sexual misconduct by John Geoghan. " Yet the cardinal denies he had " personal knowledge " of the former priest’s " propensity to harm children. " Ultimately, he refuses to accept responsibility for his decision to let Geoghan remain in the priesthood — a decision that gave Geoghan easy access to the dozens of children he allegedly molested from 1984 until two years after his retirement in 1995.

" It was a heavy blow right there, " says Patrick McSorley, who was 12 when Geoghan allegedly molested him in 1986, and who is one of the plaintiffs suing Law. " Just hearing his response added to the injury. "

Even those who have supported Law’s tenure as head of the Archdiocese of Boston found his pleadings disconcerting. Boston attorney Jeffrey Newman is among them. Newman has successfully settled roughly three sexual-abuse cases against the archdiocese (including one last year that involved a Geoghan victim) and represents seven of the victims of Church youth worker Christopher Reardon (who was sentenced August 17 to 40 to 50 years in prison for child molestation). He says he had considered the cardinal to be a " good leader in general " — until recently. " I’m disappointed, " Newman says. To suggest what Law has implied in his pleadings — and to justify his acts by claiming ignorance of the pedophilia — seems, in his words, " like selling kids down the river. "

Law’s aggressive legal strategy, though, is nothing new for those who are familiar with how the Church has handled sexual-abuse lawsuits in the past two decades. Jeff Anderson, an attorney in St. Paul, Minnesota, has earned national recognition for litigating as many as 500 suits against priests and their Church superiors in the United States and Canada since the early 1980s. Though legal defenses have varied from one diocese to the next, Anderson says a predictable pattern has emerged. " First, " he explains, " Church officials will deny the allegations. " Then they tend to find fault with every party but the Church. If they do accept liability, he adds, they try to minimize the harm done. " Officials do anything to get off the hook, " Anderson says. He says that although the Catholic Church has an undeniable right to defend itself, " there is a big difference between exercising a legal privilege and deploying scorched-earth tactics. "

" Too often, " he concludes, " the Church crosses the line. It re-victimizes victims. "

Just seven days after his pleadings made banner headlines, Law (who, through archdiocese spokesperson John Walsh, declined to be interviewed) went to great lengths to defend his conduct in the July 27 issue of the Pilot, a newspaper published by the Boston archdiocese. The same edition included a letter to the editor from Law’s lawyer, Wilson Rogers Jr., criticizing what he called the " disingenuousness " of Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who represents 86 plaintiffs in civil suits currently pending against Geoghan. Rogers blasted his legal opponent for making an issue of Rogers’s and Law’s decision to use the " comparative negligence " defense — i.e., that the abuse was partially due to the victims’ recklessness. Such language, Rogers insisted in his letter, " is standard, indeed universal practice " in negligence claims. " While it is readily understandable how a non-lawyer could look at such a formal answer in response to the complaint and conclude that the Church is blaming the alleged victim, " he wrote, " for a lawyer to do so is, in my opinion, an extraordinary example of disingenuousness. "

Many of Rogers’s own colleagues offer a different view, however. On the one hand, it’s true that comparative negligence is boilerplate, a standard defense in complaints where the plaintiff, say, falls down a public stairwell or slips on a patch of ice. Yet accidents like these, attorneys argue, cannot be compared to incidents of child sexual assault. Under state law, in fact, children younger than 16 cannot give legal consent to having sex. That means they cannot be held legally responsible for sexually abusive encounters. Says Carmen Durso, a Boston attorney who handles lawsuits related to clergy sexual abuse, " If the Church really did not intend for a jury to say ‘Maybe it’s the victim’s fault,’ it would have struck this defense. " Rogers did not return three calls requesting comment.

Whether justified or not, Law’s tactics in the Geoghan cases — which include filing motions to dismiss the suits; arguing that determining whether Church superiors properly supervised Geoghan would force the court to examine canon law, which is shielded by the First Amendment; and trying to seal from the public all court documents related to the allegations against Law — stand in stark contrast with the cardinal’s public posture. Law has repeatedly condemned child molestation by priests as " a heinous act " for which Church leaders must do " all we can do to bring some measure of healing " to victims. " The sexual abuse of minors by priests is one of the most painful problems facing the contemporary Church, " he wrote in the July 27 Pilot. " I only wish that the knowledge that we have today had been available to us earlier. It’s fair to say, however, that society has been on a learning curve with regard to sexual abuse of minors. The Church, too, has been on a learning curve. We have learned, and we will continue to learn. " (After Reardon was sentenced on Friday, however, Law said that he wanted to review policy and see whether the Church could do a better job at preventing molestation of youth by priests and Church workers. Apparently the learning curve is a steep one indeed if the Geoghan cases weren’t enough to prompt such a review in the first place.)

BUT FOR those who have already been caught in the web of sexual abuse by rogue priests, the only thing that the Catholic Church has learned, it seems, is how to fight. " Church leaders treat these cases worse today than they did 20 years ago, " says Tom Economus, who directs Linkup, a Chicago-based advocacy group for victims of clergy sexual abuse. " I say that because the Church has become far more litigious. " Economus has spent more than a decade tracking cases of child molestation by priests throughout the country. Every single US diocese has had to plot a defense in a priest-pedophile case, he says. And all 188 of them have responded in much the same way; bishops " do whatever has to be done to protect mother Church. "

Economus draws parallels between the lawsuits pending against Geoghan and what he refers to as " the landmark cases " involving the now-suspended priest Raymond Pcolka in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The Pcolka story has tarnished the Diocese of Bridgeport as the Geoghan scandal has the Archdiocese of Boston. Since 1993, one victim after another has relayed sordid tales of rape and sodomy at the hands of this priest. All told, 17 lawsuits were brought against him and his superiors, including New York’s Edward Cardinal Egan, who holds perhaps the Church’s highest-profile position in the United States and was the presiding bishop in Bridgeport at the time. (The Pcolka cases spawned a mass of lawsuits against five other diocesan priests and officials.) Church leaders in Bridgeport, like those in Boston, put up a bruising battle. Egan " was as ruthless as Law, " Economus says. " He fought these cases tooth and nail. "

When the Bridgeport firm Tremont and Sheldon filed negligence complaints on behalf of two Pcolka victims in January 1993, lawyers for the Church had a swift response. " They called us, " says Jason Tremont, whose late father, Paul Tremont, represented the plaintiffs. " They threatened to sue the victims for slander. "

The threat fell apart as soon as 15 additional Pcolka victims joined the litigation. But rather than work to accommodate them, the diocese threw up barriers. Its lawyers tried to dismiss the complaints, arguing that the Church had no reason to suspect Pcolka of sexual misconduct. Officials then delayed testimony, had documents sealed, defied court orders, and stonewalled proceedings through restraining orders and other legal devices. " If there was opportunity to file a motion and slow down discovery, " Tremont explains, " Church officials did it. "

In 1997, the Church waged its most creative legal defense yet. During a New Haven trial involving abuse allegations against a Stamford priest, then-bishop Egan was called as a witness. Testifying by videotape, he contended that the Bridgeport diocese could not be held liable for any sexual misconduct because priests are like independent contractors. " We all went nuts with that, " Economus recalls — prompting a quick retraction from the bishop. " To clear up any misunderstanding, " Egan wrote in a September 4, 1997, letter to parishioners, " I need to add that, for personal income tax purposes only, priests ... are considered ... self-employed independent contractors. This, however, does not mean that a priest is a so-called ‘independent contractor’ for any other purpose.... Moreover, the Bishop is responsible for the overall administration and spiritual care of the Diocese. "

Despite this nod to responsibility, it would be three more years before lawyers for the Church broached a settlement. By then, Egan had been promoted to head the Archdiocese of New York — the largest Catholic district in the nation. In March 2001, just months after Egan had left Connecticut, the Pcolka cases were settled for a reported $15 million. (Approximately 10 lawsuits against other priests were included in the agreement.) The Bridgeport diocese issued a statement in which Church leaders apologized to the victims, and admitted that some of their claims were true. The conciliatory tone " was totally opposite the legal strategy, " Tremont notes. " We endured eight years of ridiculous actions by the Church to thwart the truth. "

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Issue Date: August 23 - 30, 2001