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Costs Mount As Church Tries To Settle Abuse Cases

Feb 4, 2002 | The Washington Post

A year ago, Donnie Frei and his parents finally confronted their former priest in court. They watched with deep satisfaction as Msgr. Robert Trupia was handcuffed and taken to jail to await trial on charges of sexually molesting Frei, now 39, and other former altar boys at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Yuma, Ariz., in the 1970s.

But the trial never took place.

Less than 24 hours after that initial court appearance, prosecutors decided they could not bring a 25-year-old case under Arizona's statute of limitations. They dropped all the criminal charges.

Frustrated, the Frei family and others pressed a civil lawsuit against the 53-year-old clergyman and the Catholic diocese of Tucson, which they accused of trying to cover up allegations of pedophilia against Trupia and three other priests. Last month the diocese and the plaintiffs announced they had settled the suit for an undisclosed sum.

The settlement, which a person close to the case said was in the millions of dollars, is the latest of scores, and possibly hundreds, of payments made quietly by Catholic dioceses in the United States to end lawsuits alleging sexual abuse and negligence. A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former Benedictine monk who has been an expert witness for the plaintiffs in 57 of the lawsuits, estimates the church has paid out $1 billion.

Mark Chopko, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called that figure "unfounded and inflammatory" but said "nobody knows" the true amount. The jury awards and settlements that have been publicly disclosed probably total between $200 million and $300 million, he said. In a few cases, he added, the payments have temporarily bankrupted entire dioceses.

National attention has focused recently on the archdiocese of Boston, which has paid more than $10 million to settle only a portion of the lawsuits arising from pedophilia charges against the former Rev. John Geoghan.

But the Geoghan case is unusual in several respects. Geoghan has been convicted in one criminal trial and is scheduled to go on trial again, in mid-February, on charges of raping a 7-year-old. Cardinal Bernard Law, the most senior U.S. Catholic clergyman, has admitted he transferred Geoghan from parish to parish after learning of the sexual-abuse allegations.

Far more typical is the situation in Tucson, where most of the documents in the lawsuit are sealed. No trial — civil or criminal — is likely, and Bishop Manuel Moreno offered public and private apologies to victims but did not take personal responsibility for allowing the abuse.

"We acknowledge that there have been failings in the past by some within our diocese to respond appropriately to reports of abuse," he said in a joint statement with Bishop Gerald Kicanas.

While all the parties expressed some relief over the settlement, none was wholly satisfied.

The diocese is worried about its finances and is warning members it may have to cut programs. Trupia remains a priest and continues to draw a small salary from the church, although he has been suspended from clerical duties. His lawyer, Stephen Shechtel, said Trupia maintains his innocence but does not want to talk about "this very painful matter."

And the plaintiffs do not have the full measure of vindication they sought. Trupia "is scot-free" while his victims remain scarred, said Norma Grace Frei, the plaintiff's mother.

"It's such an embarrassing thing for the boys," she said. "It's a Catholic community. Nobody talks to us about it. They just kind of try to walk on the other side of the street."

Ordained in 1973, Trupia had his first assignment at St. Francis of Assisi church in Yuma. There, the plaintiffs alleged, he repeatedly molested 11- and 12-year-old altar boys in the rectory after Sunday services.

In 1976, a former police officer named Ted Oswald, then a lay brother at St. Francis and now a priest in California, became suspicious. Oswald was helping some of the boys with a school project when "the floodgates opened and everybody started saying what (Trupia) was doing to them," one of the former altar boys, Timothy Badgley, 40, said in an interview.

Badgley, who is not among the plaintiffs, said Oswald asked the boys to write out statements, which he took to superiors in the diocese. Within days, Trupia was removed from Yuma. The boys' families were told that the priest was being treated for pedophilia.

According to the plaintiffs, however, there is no evidence Trupia underwent treatment. Rather, he was transferred to Our Mother of Sorrows, a Tucson parish and school where he taught sex education and ran a "Come and See" program to show boys what it might be like to become a priest.

With regular access to young people, the plaintiffs alleged, Trupia preyed on so many young boys in Tucson from 1976 through the 1980s that other priests nicknamed him "Chicken Hawk." But according to depositions cited at preliminary hearings, at least two priests who raised questions about Trupia's behavior were told by superiors to mind their own business, and all reports of pedophilia disappeared from his personnel file.

Last year, a court order forced the diocese of Tucson to provide the plaintiffs with documents from its secret archives, including affidavits that Moreno sent to the Vatican in 1994 and 1995.

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