Church Settlement Goes beyond the Abused

By Jeffrey Gettleman
The New York Times [Louisville KY]
Downloaded June 12, 2003

OUISVILLE, Ky., June 11 - The refugee English classes. The soup kitchens. The little bus that ferries the elderly to the doctor. Programs for the deaf.

The Roman Catholic Church is one of the strongest strands of the safety net here in northern Kentucky, but its programs may soon be cut because of the actions of wayward priests.

A multimillion-dollar sexual abuse settlement is going to drain church coffers and could leave thousands of needy people across this city stranded.

Zainabu Sesay is one of them.

Today, as she does every day, Ms. Sesay, a refugee from Sierra Leone, showed up at the Catholic Charities refugee center for her "survival English" class.

"We don't know the culture, and the English class teaches us the culture, it helps us interact," said Ms. Sesay, who spoke English before coming here two months ago but values the lessons to help her adjust to her new life. If they are canceled, she added, "it will be a problem for us."

A day after the Archdiocese of Louisville struck one of the largest settlements stemming from sexual abuse accusations, Catholics and non-Catholics alike are sifting through the wreckage. It will not be just the church feeling the sting of a payout of $25.7 million but the extensive network of programs and charities that the archdiocese has carefully built over 200 years.

"It's going to be very painful without those dollars," said Dr. Brian Reynolds, the chancellor and chief administrative officer of the archdiocese. "All our areas will be impacted."

Tuesday, for the first time, the archdiocese accepted responsibility for a history of sexual abuse going back to the 1940's. Because the charges were so old, predating the days when parishes carried litigation insurance, most of the settlement is coming from the church's investment fund, worth around $48 million.

Many people here were shocked by the swiftness of the settlement, which was reached after only five days of negotiation, and its amount. It also intensified the split between those who support Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly and those who say his actions years ago, which they characterize as a cover-up, are bankrupting the church.

Carla Conklin, whose daughter just finished sixth grade at the St. Francis of Assisi school, said she thought Archbishop Kelly should resign. "I don't believe he deserves the title," Ms. Conklin said. "To me, an archbishop would have handled it differently."

Though the South is known primarily as the land of Baptists and evangelicals, the Catholic Church has deep roots in the Louisville area, reaching back two centuries. Louisville, which was named for King Louis XVI of France as a thank-you for French aid during the Revolution, was founded, in part, by French and Irish settlers pushing west.

Today, many Catholic churches, like the 151-year-old Cathedral of the Assumption, punctuate the skyline.

Over the years, the Catholic community has gained a reputation for reaching out to areas where no one else wanted to go. Dr. Reynolds estimated that the archdiocese assisted 35,000 families each year, focusing on the hungry, the poor, the relocated, the deaf, the drug-addicted and the homeless.

"There's a lot of needy people they are quietly helping," said Joanne Weis, director of human services for the Louisville Metro government. "The Catholic groups are the lead agencies working with immigrants and they funnel tremendous resources into some of our poorest areas."

The funneling is done mostly by Catholic Charities, the philanthropic arm of the archdiocese, which is staffed and financed mainly by donations to the church.

That is part of the worry.

Recently, as the stock market dipped, the value of the church's assets dropped. At the same time, more people ended up on Louisville's streets, creating a greater need for services precisely when there was less money for programs.

Then, scandal broke.

In April 2002, Mike Turner, a prosperous Louisville construction company owner, was the first to come forward, accusing his parish priest of molesting him as a boy. Soon, there were, 20, 30, 40 people complaining of having been molested. By the time the civil suit was filed against the archdiocese, there were 243 plaintiffs, mostly men.

James R. Pierce, a mechanic, said that when he was a boy his priest invited him to an apartment to console him as his father was dying. He was then molested.

"That priest is the one that gave my dad his last rites," Mr. Pierce said in an interview last year.

Like the priest scandals in Boston, Dallas and other areas, victims claimed the church covered up abuses and moved priests around to hide their misdeeds.

Two old memorandums signed by Archbishop Kelly, head of the diocese, raised questions.

In both, issued in 1983, Archbishop Kelly wrote that a local priest admitted to molesting a 15-year-old boy. The archbishop concluded that the priest was not a danger and kept him in place, a decision, Archbishop Kelly has acknowledged, he would now make differently.

By the time the allegations crested this spring, 34 priests, 2 religious brothers and 3 laypeople were accused in incidents from the 1940's through 1997. Louisville is a relatively small archdiocese, with about 200,000 Catholics and 115 active priests. The ordeal touched all corners of the community.

"It hasn't been easy," said Father Tim Hogan, pastor of St. Boniface Church. "There was this myriad of feelings of disbelief, confusion, anger, sadness that we got enmeshed in this trouble."

In March, the Rev. Louis E. Miller pleaded guilty to 50 charges of sexual abuse against children. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Another Louisville priest, the Rev. Daniel C. Clark, has also pleaded guilty to abuse charges. Several others have been indicted.

Then on Tuesday the church and the plaintiffs, at least most of them, decided to settle. The only other similar case with a larger dollar figure is one from Dallas, in 1998, which resulted in a $30.9 million settlement.

There are at least two other cases pending against the Louisville archdiocese as it tries to come to grips today with the fallout.

Father Hogan, who is also on the Catholic Charities board, said some of the services would continue unaffected, because of partnerships with federally financed programs.

"But I'm worried about the immigration work," he said. "That could very well be impacted. That program will be cut."

Archdiocese officials have emphasized that they do not know exactly how their programs will be downsized. Last month, in anticipation of the settlement, the church cut 34 jobs and $2 million from its $9 million budget.

Though there have been calls for Archbishop Kelly to resign, many people here stand by him.

"I think the good he's done outweighs the things he let slide," said Cathy Stone, 78, from the east side of Louisville. "Nobody is perfect. "


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