The pastor of St. Denis Catholic Church in southwestern Jefferson County has taken a leave of absence after being accused, in a single lawsuit, of child sexual abuse in the late 1960s.
The Rev. Donald L. Ryan, who took a paid leave after the lawsuit was filed yesterday, has denied the allegation. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Louisville says it has received no previous allegations against Ryan, who is one month shy of his 40th anniversary in the priesthood.
Also yesterday, a lawsuit was filed accusing the Rev. Leon Spalding, former pastor of St. Dominic Church in Springfield, Ky., of molesting a girl in the early 1970s, a charge the priest denied. Spalding retired last month, after facing an unrelated accusation involving a woman, according to the archdiocese
The lawsuits were among five filed against the archdiocese yesterday in Jefferson Circuit Court four of them naming current or former priests who have not previously been accused in litigation against the archdiocese.
In addition to Ryan and Spalding, the late Rev. William Patrick Caster and former priest Charles F. Dearing are accused for the first time by one plaintiff each. Another plaintiff named the late Rev. Arthur Wood, who has been accused in 39 lawsuits of molesting boys throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
In the lawsuit accusing Ryan, plaintiff Richard D. Lanham alleges the priest molested him in the mid- to late 1960s, when Lanham served as an altar boy at Holy Cross Church and was a student at Holy Cross and St. Columba schools. The lawsuit alleges that the abuse included sodomy and occurred in a church rectory and while Lanham “helped Ryan with odd jobs in and around the church.”
Ryan did not respond to a phone message left on a church answering machine yesterday. An archdiocese statement said that he denied the allegation.
Robert Kampschaefer, deacon at St. Denis, will act as parish administrator during Ryan’s absence, and visiting priests will conduct weekend Masses, according to archdiocesan spokeswoman Cecelia Price.
In the lawsuit accusing Spalding, plaintiff Rose Benkert Heeg alleges that he molested her after confession in the entryway of Holy Name Church in the early 1970s.
Spalding could not be reached yesterday, but the archdiocese said he denied the allegation. Heeg, 46, a local attorney, declined to comment yesterday.
Spalding, ordained in 1959, had planned to retire in June but decided to go early after “being accused of misconduct with an adult woman,” according to a March 14 letter by Archbishop Thomas Kelly to St. Dominic parishioners.
“After talking with him about this situation, he decided to submit his resignation, and I have accepted it, effective immediately,” Kelly wrote in the letter, which was provided to The Courier-Journal yesterday.
In all, the Archdiocese of Louisville now faces 241 lawsuits alleging abuse by more than three dozen priests and others associated with the church. Five additional lawsuits have been settled.
Since last April, the archdiocese has removed four pastors from parish ministry after saying it had substantiated abuse allegations against them. Two semiretired priests who were accused in single lawsuits have been returned to public ministry after the archdiocese concluded that they had not abused any children.
In the other lawsuits filed yesterday:
Judy Shore, 57, alleges that Caster molested her in 1955 or 1956 while she was attending Holy Family Church and School, where the lawsuit says Caster was serving as a priest.
Caster was ordained in 1954 and died in 1989, Price said.
Theresa Harp, 48, alleges that Dearing molested her between approximately 1966 and 1968 while he was a priest at St. Frances of Rome Church. Dearing left the priesthood in 1971, Price said.
Jeffrey Breunig, 50, alleges that he was abused by Wood between 1961 and 1963 while attending St. Elizabeth of Hungary School, where Wood was serving. Wood, who died in 1983 at age 59, is now accused by 39 plaintiffs of abuse throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
The filing of the lawsuits yesterday raises new questions about the impact of Kentucky’s statute of limitations on the lawsuits.
Normally the statute requires that sexual-abuse victims bring lawsuits no later than a year after their 18th birthday, but most of the pending lawsuits against the archdiocese allege sexual abuse from decades past.
Attorney William McMurry who represents the bulk of the plaintiffs, including those who filed yesterday has argued that the statute should be suspended because of allegations that the archdiocese covered up the abuse.
And the standard legal language in most of the previous lawsuits argued that the plaintiffs first became aware of an alleged cover-up of abuse in the archdiocese after The Courier-Journal’s report on April 14, 2002, of the retirement of Louis E. Miller amid allegations of abuse.
But McMurry said the plaintiffs in the five lawsuits filed yesterday first learned of the alleged cover-up after reading reports that followed the April 19, 2002, filing of the first recent lawsuit against the archdiocese.
“Each case will be looked at individually,” McMurry said yesterday, acknowledging that later filings impose “an additional burden on those that come forward to demonstrate that they learned about the allegations of concealment after this particular date in April. As time goes by, that’s going to be harder and harder to prove.”
Edward Stopher, attorney for the archdiocese, has said that the church contends that the statute of limitations has run out for various reasons, one of which will be the passing of the one-year anniversaries of both the April 14 story and the April 19 filing of the first lawsuit.
Each of the lawsuits uses identical language to allege, without offering evidence, that church officials knew that the accused priests “engaged in a pattern and course of conduct of sexually abusing children.”
Also yesterday, McMurry said he was unfazed by a New York court ruling last week that rejected a similar argument in a lawsuit against the Diocese of Brooklyn. A Queens Supreme Court justice ruled that allegations of a massive cover-up of abuse should not override laws barring lawsuits from decades past.
McMurry said the Kentucky cases are different because of a 1998 state Court of Appeals decision involving the Diocese of Covington. The appeals court ruled that the statute of limitations can be waived if there is evidence that a diocese covered up evidence of abuse. He said the case is further strengthened because Kentucky, since 1964, has had a statute requiring all citizens to report allegations of abuse, which he argues the archdiocese has failed to do.