Saying the Toledo Catholic diocese covered up years of sex abuse by Dennis Gray, six people filed lawsuits yesterday accusing the one-time priest of using the power of the cross and collar to prey on young boys.
The separate suits, filed in Lucas County Common Pleas Court, represent the largest number of complaints ever filed against the 92-year-old diocese in a sexual misconduct case.
“This is just the beginning,” said attorney Jeff Anderson during a press conference at the courthouse. “There are many more victims who are stepping forward.”
The legal actions were taken three days after The Blade revealed numerous allegations against the former priest – now a Toledo public school dean who invited scores of boys to retreats at his Michigan cottage in the 1980s.
The alleged victims say they were served cocktails by the priest before he raped and sexually molested them in his bedroom during the trips for troubled youths at Crystal Lake.
The day after the article was published, Mr. Gray was forced to step aside from his job as dean of students at Rogers High School while Toledo public school officials investigate his past.
In the only lawsuit yesterday that identifies a victim, Matt Simon, now 33, said he was molested by both Mr. Gray and the Rev. John Shiffler while both taught religion and shared offices at Toledo’s Central Catholic High School.
Mr. Gray, 54, who left the priesthood in 1987, denied the allegations last week, saying Mr. Simon and other ex-students are “only looking for money.”
Father Shiffler previously admitted to sexually abusing Mr. Simon, according to diocesan records, and as a result was removed from active ministry by Bishop James Hoffman in July.
All of the lawsuits, with the other victims referred to as “John Does,” accuse the diocese of engaging “in a pattern of corrupt activity” by moving Father Gray to different schools and churches from 1975 to 1987.
The suits accuse the diocese, like others across the nation, of following a practice of “fraudulent conduct” that was “specifically designed to prevent discovery of the wrongdoings.”
“What they did to the victims was shameless,” said David Zoll, another lawyer in the case.
The suits seek more than $25,000 in compensatory damages and an unspecified amount in punitive damages.
The Rev. Michael Billian, chancellor of the diocese, could not be reached yesterday. Last week he said he did not believe the diocese knew about Mr. Gray’s alleged activities until 1995 – eight years after he left the priesthood.
Mr. Anderson, a St. Paul attorney who has litigated hundreds of sex-abuse cases against priests in 20 states, said yesterday the diocese knew about Mr. Gray’s sex abuses in 1979 and again in 1986.
But records show the diocese never alerted police and allowed him to leave the priesthood in 1987.
“If they had gone to the police, we wouldn’t be here today,” Mr. Anderson said.
Father Gray began repeatedly molesting him in the rectory
The lawsuits allege:
One of the victims was 13 years old in 1975 when Father Gray began repeatedly molesting him in the rectory of St. Mary’s Central High School in Sandusky a defendant in the case and the Gray cottage, 60 miles north of Toledo.
Another victim was 12 years old when the priest began sexually abusing him in 1981 in the rectories of St. Charles Borromeo in Lima, St. Joseph’s parish in Maumee, and the cottage. The parishes are defendants in the case.
A third victim was 15 when the priest sexually molested him in 1984 at Crystal Lake.
A fourth victim was 14 in the summer of 1985 when he was repeatedly sexually abused at Crystal Lake by Father Gray.
And a fifth plaintiff was about 15 when he was repeatedly sexually abused at the Crystal Lake cottage.
Mr. Gray and the diocese are defendants in all the cases, while Toledo’s Central High School is named in three suits.
The separate lawsuit by Mr. Simon also names Father Shiffler and Bishop Hoffman as defendants.
Mr. Simon’s parents, Michael and Joan Simon of Toledo, joined their son in filing the case.
“These were parents who were unable to help or intercede in the life of their son because they didn’t know what happened to him for years,” said Sylvania attorney Michelle Kranz. “They were victims, too.”
Mr. Simon, a 1987 Central High School graduate, said he struggles with the memories.
“Obviously, it was a very painful period for me,” said the Texas resident, who claims the abuses began in 1983.
“I was pretty confused, and I guess I looked up to [Mr. Gray]. He was a priest,” Mr. Simon said.
Mr. Simon said the incident with Father Shiffler took place in the rectory of Toledo’s Sacred Heart Church in June, 1987.
“He saw me at a graduation party and asked me to come by because he had a graduation present for me. I was pretty naive.”
Mr. Simon said he has undergone extensive counseling since 1995, when he first complained to the diocese, records show.
“As far as day-to-day living, it has gotten better. But can I ever forget? No. Do I ever stop thinking about it? No. It’s not something you can just forget,” Mr. Simon said.
After an investigation by the diocese in 1995, Father Ray Sheperd, vicar of priests, wrote a letter to Mr. Simon saying the ex-priest “has admitted to us that he was guilty of child abuse. He is remorseful and wishes to apologize.”
Lawyers for the former students argue that the suits, along with two others filed this year, help support an effort to open the diocesan archives of sex-abuse cases dating back to the 1940s.
In the lawsuit filed by Mr. Simon, lawyers argue the diocese should have investigated Father Gray’s activities in the mid-1980s after an underground newspaper at Central reported the priest was taking teens to his cottage for sex.
“They were alerted to this, they knew it, and they chose to ignore it,” said Mr. Anderson, who was joined yesterday at the courthouse by Barbara Blaine, a Toledo native who founded the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, and lawyers Catherine Hoolahan and Ms. Kranz.
One former student suing the diocese and Mr. Gray told The Blade the diocese knew about students being raped at the cottage in February, 1987.
“The diocese was definitely suspicious,” recalled the ex-student, who was called into the office of Mr. Billian, then Centrals president, during a diocesan investigation.
“There were four priests in the room, all wanting answers. I told them about the alcohol, but they wanted to know more. I remember Father Billian asking me: ˜What else was going on?™ I was too embarrassed to say.
After Mr. Gray was allowed to quietly resign from the priesthood on Feb. 15, 1987, he applied for a job as a Lucas County probation officer.
At the time, he was given a strong recommendation by the Rev. Robert Donnelly, now auxiliary bishop, records show.
Three years later, Mr. Gray with a clean record and no mention of sex-abuse allegations from his past – was hired as dean of boys at Start High School.
When Mr. Gray applied for the job, he listed the superintendent of Catholic schools, the Rev. John Thomas, as a reference, along with former University of Toledo Law School Dean John Stoepler.
“He came highly recommended,” said Jane Bruss, Toledo public school district spokeswoman.