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Man Sues Vatican, Catholic Leaders Under Racketeering Law Alleging They Protected Abusive Priests

Apr 19, 2002 | AP

Making use of a racketeering law, a man has sued the Vatican a former bishop and four dioceses, accusing them of hiding the transgressions of a "web of predator priests" whose sexual misconduct spans at least three decades.

The lawsuit filed Thursday is the second in as many months accusing Catholic leaders of racketeering under The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. It is the third lawsuit alleging abuse by ex-bishop Anthony O'Connell while he served as rector of a church school in Hannibal, Missouri.

The Vatican was named because it required each diocese to keep secret files about problem priests whose misconduct might expose the Catholic Church to scandals and lawsuits, said Jeff Anderson, an attorney for the unnamed plaintiff.

The lawsuit also names dioceses where O'Connell worked — in Jefferson City, Missouri; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Palm Beach, Florida — and accuses the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese of failing to act in the mid-1990s on the accuser's complaints. The man alleges he reported O'Connell to the Kansas City diocese because he lived there at the time, but received no help.

"Hopefully today we can begin a process of healing, prevention, exposure and perhaps someday, justice," Anderson said in announcing the lawsuit, which does not specify damages.

Officials for the dioceses said they had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment.

"We're concerned about all victims, and we certainly regret the way the church has handled some of these in the past," said Mark Saucier, spokesman for the Jefferson City Diocese. "We're determined to do everything we can to prevent any type of abusive behavior."

Next week, American cardinals plan to meet in Rome for an unprecedented Vatican summit on clergy sex abuse.

Thursday's suit accuses O'Connell of abuse from the time the plaintiff was a 15-year-old at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in the late 1960s until 1993. Another unidentified man sued O'Connell last month, claiming he was abused at St. Thomas starting in the late 1960s.

O'Connell resigned last month as bishop in Palm Beach after admitting he abused Chris Dixon, now 40, in the late 1970s at the Hannibal boarding school for boys. The diocese has said O'Connell is in seclusion and unavailable for comment.

The earlier racketeering suit, filed March 22 in Hannibal by an unnamed ex-seminarian, alleged a conspiracy by U.S. bishops to keep abuse claims secret from police, prosecutors and the public.

The RICO law is aimed mostly at organized crime. But it includes provisions for civil cases when someone is harmed by a "pattern" of illegal activity.

Racketeering lawsuits have been used in at least two other church abuse cases, neither successfully.

In another child molestation case, prosecutors subpoenaed the archbishop of Cincinnati to appear before a grand jury, but then excused him after the church released information, officials said.

Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, a former president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Chancellor Christopher Armstrong both received summonses to discuss child abuse allegations Thursday.

Pilarczyk, 67, was excused because the archdiocese turned over requested information, Hamilton County Prosecutor Michael Allen said. He wouldn't say what the information entailed, but he said Pilarczyk's summons is still active, meaning he could be called to testify later.

Prosecutors had sought information about the identities of people who had reported or investigated child abuse allegations, as well as possible victims and offenders.

The archdiocese said it was willing to cooperate with the investigation but it wanted a grand jury subpoena first, which it said would keep church records confidential unless there was a criminal indictment.

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