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19 Want To Join Suit vs. Diocese

All allege abuse by priests in past

Apr 23, 2003 | Lexington Herald Leader

An attorney wants to file a revised complaint against the Roman Catholic diocese of Lexington and Covington that names 19 new alleged victims of sexual misconduct by priests and accuses church officials of knowing as early as 1945 that one of the priests was preying on children.

Fayette Circuit Judge Mary Noble could hear arguments next week on whether to allow the new plaintiffs and some new allegations into the suit, which was filed last year on behalf of four men and one woman who alleged that they had been molested as children by the Revs. Leonard Nienaber, Edward Francis Murray, John Modica, Joseph Pilger and other, unidentified priests.

The amended complaint also names those to whom abuse allegedly was reported, including former Lexington Diocese Bishop J. Kendrick Williams and Sisters Mary Kevan Seibert and Mary deLillis, who were principals of Mary Queen of the Rosary's elementary school, where Nienaber visited daily and taught and where most of the abuse is alleged to have occurred.

The suit names both the dioceses of Lexington and Covington. The Lexington Diocese has asked that it be struck from the suit because it did not exist until Pope John Paul II created it in 1988 well after the alleged molestation took place. Noble has yet to rule on that motion.

"I don't think this complaint raises any allegations about the Diocese of Lexington at all," John Famularo, the diocese's attorney, said yesterday. "All the allegations occurred before we were created. We didn't know about it and we certainly didn't assume liability."

Diocese denied allegations

In its court response to the suit as it was filed before the amended complaint was filed Monday, the Lexington Diocese denied allegations that it failed to report abuse by priests and also said, in part, that the plaintiffs' claims were barred because of their own "contributory or comparative negligence."

William Moran of Cincinnati, attorney for the Diocese of Covington, was out of the office yesterday and could not be reached. Lexington was part of that diocese before 1988.

Williams, who resigned as head of the Lexington Diocese last year, and Seibert have both given sworn statements denying any knowledge of abuse by priests.

Modica, reached yesterday in Melbourne, Ky., denied an allegation by R.J. Bailey of Lexington, who claims in the new complaint that he was abused by the priest in 1977.

Pilger, of Lexington, declined to comment on the allegation of Daniel Willett of Florida, who claims he was abused in 1962 at St. Paul's School in Lexington. Pilger pleaded guilty in 1995 to abusing three brothers when he was their pastor in the 1960s.

The whereabouts of deLillis could not be determined yesterday. Murray is dead.

Nienaber, a priest since 1934, could not be reached; he is accused of abuse by 17 of the 19 would-be plaintiffs who moved to enter the case Monday. He was charged in Fayette County in 1993 with 39 counts related to child molestation and pleaded guilty to 10 felonies. As part of his plea bargain, he was dispatched to serve 10 years at a place in Missouri called the Servants of Paraclete, a Roman Catholic organization that treats pedophile priests, according to the complaint. He remains there to this day.

16 plaintiffs are women

Of the 19 new plaintiffs who want to join the lawsuit, 16 are women, making it an unusual case against the church compared with others filed nationwide, mostly by male plaintiffs.

"To the best of my knowledge, this is now the largest number of women in any action in the country," said Lexington attorney Robert Treadway, who represents the plaintiffs.

"This litigation is veering toward focusing more on women than men.The abuse of women and young girls may be one of the untold stories in this whole saga of sexual abuse."

Not all of the women in the new complaint were Catholic parishioners, although most were at Mary Queen of the Holy Rosary school. Three of them claim that they lived in the neighborhood around the school when they were between 10 and 13 years old and were assaulted by Nienaber as they played on church grounds or walked through Southland Park.

The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages against both the Lexington and Covington dioceses, and cites the charter Catholic bishops passed last year "for the protection of children and young people," a document that says, in part: "As bishops ... we also take responsibility for dealing with this problem strongly, consistently and effectively in the future."

The only way the church can do that, Treadway says in his amended complaint, "is through just compensation for the victims of such abuse."


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