In the Vineyard :: September 9, 2016 :: Volume 16, Issue 17


In heavily Catholic southern Louisiana, the diocese and the world learned that Fr. Gilbert Gauthe had been sexually violating pre-pubescent boys from the first week of his first priestly assignment in 1972 and continued to do so until intense pressure from outraged parents finally prompted the bishop to remove him from public ministry twelve years later.

Up in Minnesota the parents of a lone victim of Fr. Tom Adamson approached attorney Jeff Anderson and told him about the abuse suffered by their son and how they had been treated by the Church officials. They learned that in 1981 Adamson had been required by the Church to seek psychological treatment, prompted by reports of sexual abuse of boys. They knew that Adamson’s last sexual contact with their son had been in 1982!
Anderson took the case and soon learned that Adamson, originally from the diocese of Winona, south of St. Paul, had been sent by his bishop, Loras Watters, to St. Paul by agreement with Archbishop John Roach. He left behind a string of victims only to prey on even more young boys in the St. Paul Archdiocese.

The Adamson case did not get much, if any, coverage in the secular media but this was far from the case in Louisiana. The diocese had entered into a settlement with six families representing nine victims of Gauthe. The settlement included a confidentiality clause which would have kept the abuse and its cover-up secret and in time forgotten by all but the victims and their families.

The Vicar General of Lafayette, Msgr. Alex Larroque, had written Archbishop Pio Laghi, the papal nuncio, to inform him of the settlement with the six families. The letter explained that Fr. Gauthe had abused the little boys but that he was now in counselling and that the families were bound by confidentiality so there was really nothing to worry about. It was all under control.

A few days later Larroque sent another letter to Archbishop Laghi with far different news. One family, the Gastals, had pulled out of the agreement and were represented by an attorney who was filing a civil suit against the diocese. Now the Church had a problem.

When Minos Simon, the Gastal’s attorney, filed the civil suit, it was clear that Gauthe’s crimes were well within the statute of limitations. This left the District Attorney, Nathan Stansbury, with no alternative but to charge Gauthe in the criminal court. The diocese hired F. Ray Mouton, a young local attorney with a reputation for being flamboyant and tough, to represent Gauthe as his defense counsel.

In St. Paul and Lafayette, the victims and their families emerged from the shadows and did what had never been done in the centuries-long history of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church: they took control. These two families did the unthinkable. They not only stood up to the bishops but they took them to court. Whatever degree of piety, obedience and devotion they had to the institutional Church, it was trumped by their love of their children. This was a spiritual and emotional dynamic the bishops will never understand for the simple reason that none of them have ever been or ever will be parents. In each diocese the bishops acted more like risk managers than bishops or even chief executive officers.

In Louisiana there was constant coverage in the secular media both on the local and national levels. The diocese’s stance was totally defensive with no proactive moves to provide pastoral care for the victims or to deal with the other priests in the diocese who had been “outed.”

The United States Catholic Conference, or the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, as it was known then, showed little interest in the matter until spring of 1985 as a result of media asking if the bishops had procedures to respond to reports of clergy sexual abuse. At one press conference in April 1985 the spokesperson for the NCCB informed the reporters that they had policies and procedures in place. When asked to produce written copies he informed them that they weren’t written down.

The NCCB began to show interest, albeit defensive interest, as the civil suit filed by the Gastal family continued with no signs that it was going away. Fr. Michael Peterson, a psychiatrist who specialized in treating clergy with psychological or substance problems, was working directly with the diocese to evaluate and treat Gauthe, and Ray Mouton was collaborating with Peterson and with me on the issue of confronting not just the Louisiana case but the possibility that such abuse existed on a much wider scale. I was in regular contact with bishops, many of whom were very interested in the Gauthe case. Some bishops had never encountered such a problem and others had dealt with cases in the past but knew that they would have to face clergy abuse in an entirely different way from then on.

Based on the discussions with bishops that Mike Peterson and I were having and based on the frightening predictions of Ray Mouton (all of which proved accurate), the three of us decided to prepare a written document that we hoped would help bishops deal with individual cases. Some of the bishops we consulted were very responsive and encouraging and suggested a “question and answer” format. We joined together and created a document divided up into three main sections that included information on what we believed to be the main areas of concern: medical (psychological and psychiatric), civil law, insurance, canon law, and pastoral care. This document became known as “The Manual.” The main supporters from among the hierarchy were Cardinals Law and Krol and Bishops Bevilacqua and Keating. The papal nuncio was also supportive and encouraging.

Along with the manual we put together an action proposal. We suggested the creation of a “Crisis Intervention Team” which would consist of medical, legal, canonical and pastoral experts who would be available to any bishop should he wish their help. The “team” would actually consist of experts from different areas of the country who would help any bishop who asked for assistance. This endeavor would be coordinated by an office to be set up at the NCCB headquarters. Contrary to the distorted responses of the conference spokespersons when asked about this, it would definitely not be any form of “swat team” nor would its use be mandatory. It was simply a resource to be made available to bishops.

The NCCB leadership was presented with copies of the Manual. We had no specific recommendation for them but hoped that they would take it seriously and make it available to bishops who possibly would have wanted to use it as a resource.
The conference leadership was obviously threatened by the fact that we had taken a proactive approach which was supported by the Nunciature. They not only showed no interest in even looking at the manual but claimed that there was nothing in it they did not already know.

During this time Ray, Mike and I realized that there was strong resistance from the bishops’ conference to any proactive responses to sexual abuse. Since the Gauthe trial and its attendant publicity, a significant number of other reports of clergy abuse went public in various dioceses. The NCCB issued a few statements and memos to the bishops, mostly through the office of their general counsel. Nothing they said or did made an iota of significant difference, as the ensuing years have clearly demonstrated.

The two lawsuits had a significance that went far deeper than the courtroom action. The Church’s vault of secrecy, where their files and records of the legacy of sexual abuse remained hidden, was slowly but surely being pried open as the plaintiff’s lawyers continued to succeed in their demands for discovery. This, more than anything else, including the prospects of heavy monetary losses, was the greatest source of threat and fear. If the secrets got out, as they did, it meant the gilded image of the hierarchy would be tarnished beyond repair. That was the fear back in 1986 and that is exactly what has happened.

From the beginning, the dynamics of the sexual abuse phenomenon were steadily being redefined. Over the centuries there had been other historical episodes when clergy abuse was recognized as a serious and even grave problem and each time the hierarchical leadership had the upper hand. This time it was the other way around. The victims and their supporters and not the bishops exerted the primary and lasting influence on how the phenomenon was being played out in the institutional Church and in society.

The active participants were also being redefined. Prior to the eighties if a victim or victim’s family disclosed an incident to a church official, it was dealt with by the bishop and one or two of his closest advisors. The first and most essential response was to avoid any disclosure beyond this tight circle, which usually meant either convincing, intimidating or threatening the victim and family into silence.

This blanket of secrecy remained intact even if the police were involved, with the offending priest usually turned back over to the bishop and the issue buried, “for the good of the church.”
This was the way it was before LinkUp, SNAP, Road to Recovery and, especially, before shocked Catholics who believed it could happen.

After the initial revelations in 1985 the secular media shifted its stance from protecting the church by very minimal reporting to aggressive investigative reporting. After Jason Berry published his series in the Times of Acadiana in 1985, much of the media coverage, following Jason’s heroic lead, focused not on the individual stories of sexual assault but on the systemic cover-up by the bishops.

The bishops were clearly in a damage control mode and they remained that way. They badly fumbled the whole issue of sexual abuse, which was a major reason why it was shifted into the civil law forum. Early attempts by victims and their families to make reports, [and] receive pastoral care and assurances that the offending priest would be removed were either rebuffed outright or met with duplicitous responses. Those who first went to the civil courts felt they had no other choice. The motivating factor was not money or revenge but finding a way to assure that the offending priest was prevented from hurting other children.

As the lawsuits increased around the country, the defense tactics became increasingly aggressive and brutal. Victims were subjected to harsh and even vicious deposition examinations by lawyers hired by the bishops. Witnesses for the victims, including expert witnesses, were also subjected to such tactics. The situation between the victims and the bishops was adversarial at the very beginning but could have been changed had the bishops acted pastorally and not defensively. The adversarial atmosphere only became worse, much worse, after the defense lawyers decided that winning at all cost was the only value. In some cases, their clients, the bishops and religious superiors, may well have felt sympathy for the victims and wanted to help them but these intentions were regularly derailed by the lawyers who were concerned only with protecting the Church’s assets. Although many tried to justify their tactics by claiming that this was the way litigation worked or by claiming they were trying to protect “the Church,” in reality they often crossed the line and acted more like inquisitors than officers of the court.

Victims and in some cases even their families were sometimes countersued. In his book Vows of Silence (2004), Jason Berry recounts an incident from Chicago when the late Fr. Andy Greeley angrily confronted Cardinal Bernardin (also deceased) with legal papers he had obtained which showed that the archdiocesan attorneys were countersuing the family of a victim (p. 87).

This was not the only instance of such despicable tactics nor were countersuits the only tactic employed. Church lawyers have regularly prolonged cases unnecessarily, lining their own pockets in the process and subjecting the victims to needless stress and even victimization.

In Los Angeles the Church’s lawyers protracted the negotiations between 500 victims and the archdiocese for years before reaching a $660 million settlement, in the process taking in millions of dollars in fees—dollars donated by the public and used primarily to try to protect the Cardinal (Mahony).

After the settlement was finally reached in 2007, the plaintiffs expected that one of the non-monetary demands agreed upon, the release of the files of the accused priests, would quickly follow. That would have been too good to be true. Instead, lawyers paid by the archdiocese started a series of legal maneuvers to prolong the inevitable, maneuvers that would drag on for another five years. The agile countermaneuvering of two of the plaintiff attorneys put an end to the highly expensive and hypocritical charade just a few days before the election of Pope Francis (March 13, 2013).

The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph probably has the distinction of paying out millions for some of the most extensive and useless legal maneuvering in the country. In one case, which was a wrongful death case brought by the parents of a 14 year old victim of predator-priest Tom O’Brien who committed suicide at 14, the Church’s lawyers took 200 depositions and filed over 2,000 motions. Plaintiffs’ attorney Rebecca Randles had a photo taken of her beside the stack of legal documents filed by the defense which constituted only their motions to dismiss. The stack was taller than Rebecca.
The most disgusting and hypocritical example of a bishop colluding with his lawyers to deny justice to victims was the bankruptcy process in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Many of the plaintiffs were victims of Fr. Lawrence Murphy, the chaplain at St. John’s School for the Deaf, who sexually violated at least 200 deaf boys. The archbishop (Listecki) invited all victims to come forward to receive the Church’s help. Unbeknownst to them, this was nothing more than a tactic to draw them out. His lawyers then proceeded to try to disqualify every one of the plaintiffs. The process dragged on for over four years during which the Church lawyers managed to rack up close to twenty million dollars in fees, even before a single dime was paid to a victim.

Look for Part 3 in the next issue.


If you can’t wait for Parts 2-5, you can find the entire speech here on our web pages.


Page One

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