In one of the first legal attacks on the United States’ Roman Catholic leadership, a self-described molestation victim has filed suit claiming bishops conspired in the past 30 years to protect priests who sexually abused children to “avoid detection, public disclosure and scandal.”
The lawsuit filed yesterday in Orange County (Calif.) Superior Court says the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops conducted seminars to show bishops and dioceses how to discourage and discredit claims of child sexual molestation, how to conceal or “sanitize” damaging records of accused molesters and how to quietly transfer suspected molesters without raising suspicion.
Some experts said the suit is an innovative legal strategy to hold U.S. bishops accountable for a national wave of molestation cases involving priests that has tarnished the reputation of the church. Others called it legal grandstanding with no credibility.
“This is an inevitable and logical conclusion to all that has been revealed in the past year,” said Richard Sipe, a former priest and expert on sexual abuse of minors in the Roman Catholic Church.
An attorney for the bishops conference called the suit “frivolous,” saying the national association of bishops never engaged in the kind of tactics alleged.
Mark Chopko, general counsel for the conference, said the group had been named once before in a sexual-abuse suit but was dropped as a defendant.
Also named in the suit filed by David Price are the Los Angeles and Orange dioceses and a Maryland treatment center for clerics.
Price, 37, says he was molested as a teenager by Monsignor Michael Harris, his principal at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif., over five years ending in 1983. The dioceses of Los Angeles and Orange paid $5.2 million last year to settle molestation accusations by another plaintiff against Harris. The former priest has denied all accusations.
Price originally filed suit in 1994, claiming Harris molested him. A Superior Court judge rejected that case, saying the statute of limitations had expired.
Price now is charging the Diocese of Orange with fraud, saying its attorneys called his first case against Harris “unmeritorious,” though its leaders already had reviewed a report on the priest’s suspected sexual misconduct from a Maryland treatment center where Harris was evaluated in early 1994. Price also says church officials knew of others who had come forward with sexual-abuse accusations against Harris.