St.George - A circuit judge on Friday refused to approve an agreement tosettle claims of sexual abuse against the Catholic Diocese ofCharleston, instead ordering an investigation to determine whetherthere was a cover-up of additional abuse cases.
Dorchester County Judge Diane Goodstein expressed "grave concern"over two new court revelations: A 1962 Vatican document calling forsecrecy on the part of church officials and "denouncers," and asuggestion made by Larry Richter, a lawyer representing victims ofabuse, that "there is a difference between the number of priests whohave engaged in sexual assault or abuse and the real number, and thatthe real number may be somewhere hidden or undisclosed or secret."
Richter referred to the diocese's
"secret archives" which, he said, likely contain information on all cases of abuse.
James Geoly, an attorney for the Catholic Church, objected earlierin the hearing to the citation of the document, called an "Instructionon the Manner of Proceeding in Cases of Solicitation," saying itreferred to the sacrament of confession, not sexual abuse, and that "itlacks authentication and is hearsay."
"It is not and never was intended to be a prohibition of anyone to come forward with a secular claim," Geoly said.
Goodstein said Dorchester County Solicitor David Pascoe would leadthe investigation and that she would make her decision on the proposedsettlement once the results are known.
"I must have assurances that there are no crimes that have beencommitted against children, now adults, that have been undisclosed tolaw enforcement," she said.
The settlement agreement, which resulted in a class-action lawsuit,was the result of tense and adversarial negotiations between thediocese and the victims' lawyers, according to testimony. Richter saidchurch officials had to be "dragged kicking and screaming" to thesettlement.
"The diocese did nothing on its own initiative," he said.
Diocese lawyer Peter Shahid Jr. dismissed the charge, saying thatchurch officials had addressed claims during the past 10 years. "We areadversaries," he confirmed, "but peddling in the same direction." Asettlement agreement had been hammered out, he said.
The class-action suit opens a window of opportunity, typically 120days, for people born before Aug. 30, 1980, with legitimate claims ofchild sexual abuse to file a claim. All victims of abuse in the Dioceseof Charleston are automatically eligible to file, and all have a rightto opt out of the class action to pursue other litigation, according tothe agreement.
Victims who do not join the suit or who opt out will become unableto make any claim against the diocese after the filing period. Thosewho have made a prior claim against the diocese, regardless of whetherthat claim succeeded or failed, are ineligible to participate in theclass-action suit. Awards range from $10,000 to $200,000, depending onthe type of alleged abuse.
Parents and current spouses of victims also can participate in thesuit, claiming "loss of consortium," which would make them eligible fora $20,000 award. Those born after Aug. 30, 1980, still may beunhindered by the six-year statute of limitations and able to takelegal action independently.
Charleston attorney Gregg Meyers, who represents one victim and hasrepresented others in the past, said the $20,000 consortium cap wasunfair and inadequate, considering the burden that child abuse placeson parents and spouses. He also asked to expand the criteria forgranting monetary settlements, saying that "touch" alone - establishingthat victims were physically violated - was insufficient, consideringthe profound psychological damage most victims suffer.
Richter objected, saying Meyers cannot advocate for individuals he no longer represents.
Walter Bilbro, another Charleston attorney, also emphasized the needto compensate for victims' psychological trauma, which is likely topersist well into the future. But it was unclear Friday whether theterms of the settlement would be adjusted.
Richter said 53 people so far have submitted claims. Between 1950and 2006, church officials identified 50 victims, some of whom madeclaims against the diocese. During that period, 26 clergy and twonon-clergy are alleged to have committed acts of sexual misconduct.Nine were found or pleaded guilty, though none served any jail time.Richter, who is Catholic, called on the bishop to release the names andlocations of all known perpetrators.
"I am sickened that a few perverts have besmirched the good name of my church and my religion," he said.
Shahid said the call for an investigation likely is a formality, and that the diocese once before complied with such an inquiry.
"I think she's following the law, and we will cooperate fully," he said.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902 or email@example.com.