Tentative settlement reached in Kansas City priest abuse cases

By MARK MORRIS | The Kansas City Star

The Catholic Diocese in Kansas City and more than 40 victims of clergy sexual abuse tentatively agreed late Tuesday to settle lawsuits against the church for about $10 million.

The settlement – which still must receive final approval by Bishop Robert Finn and two church boards – also requires the diocese to take new steps to prevent further molestation by priests. The settlement could become final by Thursday, lawyers said.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs described the settlement as the largest by the church in Missouri and said it would resolve claims filed in Jackson County from 2002 to the present. The lawsuits alleged clergy sexual abuse beginning almost 60 years ago and continuing into the 1990s.

Talks to settle some of the cases filed by 47 plaintiffs have been going on for months, but negotiations to dispose all of the cases began in earnest more recently, according to parties on all sides of the case.

The plaintiffs already have begun meeting with an arbitrator, who will apportion the financial settlement among them.

Kansas City lawyer Rebecca Randles said her clients were less concerned about the money than the church’s pledge to care for the victims of molestation and prevent more abuse.

“Money is such a poor means of exchange for the value of a soul,” Randles said.

Jon Haden, a lawyer representing the diocese, confirmed the outlines of the settlement and said he was optimistic it would be completed soon.

“We have been involved in extensive negotiations with plaintiffs, and we hope we can reach a group resolution of the claims,” Haden said.

In a letter released late Tuesday, Finn informed his priests about the tentative settlement and said it could help resolve a painful situation.

“Based on advice from legal counsel and on prayerful reflection over this most difficult matter, I believe that this settlement, while costly, is a responsible resolution for these individuals and their families and in the best interest of the diocese,” Finn wrote.

The priests and clerics accused in the lawsuits were retired Wyoming Bishop Joseph Hart, John Tulipana, Thomas J. Ward, Earl Johnson, Stephen Wise, Francis E. McGlynn, Hugh F. Monahan, John C. Baskett, Thomas J. O’Brien, Thomas J. Reardon, James Lawbaugh and Sylvester Hoppe.

Reached Tuesday night, O’Brien said he was shocked by news of the settlement and again denied accusations brought against him in the lawsuits that prompted it.

“Of those 47 plaintiffs, I don’t know which ones I’m concerned with, or which ones are concerned with me,” O’Brien said. “In depositions that were made, some of my accusers admitted that they didn’t even know me.

“I have to deny the accusations.”

He referred further questions about the settlement to his attorney.

Hart said Tuesday night that he was aware of the talks going on but also referred questions to his attorney.

Those attorneys could not be reached for comment.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs emphasized that the tentative settlement represented a global resolution of all known sexual abuse allegations against the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and religious orders. The settlement also covers priests and former clerics who were sued individually.

“These are 47 families who have suffered from clergy abuse for years,” said Stanley Spero, a Massachusetts lawyer involved in the case. “They need to move on, and the fact that money will be available soon is important.”

Randles said plaintiffs began meeting Monday with the arbitrator, Kansas City lawyer Hollis Hanover, who will finish his hearings in about two weeks. He then will have 10 days to apportion the settlement money, Randles said.

Patrick Noaker, a Minneapolis attorney who also has worked on the local cases, said the non-economic terms of the proposed settlement, which he described as “reforms,” were the most important elements for his clients.

While he declined to disclose the entire list because some items still are under negotiation, Noaker said some would include:

  • A public acknowledgement by the diocese, in church publications and other media, of the wrongful conduct of some priests.
  • A commitment for the church to provide counseling for victims of clergy sexual abuse.
  • A promise from the diocese not to provide references or recommendations for former priests who have been credibly accused of child or sexual abuse.

The lawsuits claimed negligent supervision of the priests by the diocese, which previously had settled several individual cases. The payments in those cases ranged from $10,000 to $225,000.

And in 2004, the diocese acknowledged spending $855,826 during the previous 56 years in settlement, legal fees and counseling expenses to resolve such cases. That money came from insurance reserves.

Other notable settlements in recent years include, according to news reports:

  • $100 million for 90 abuse claims in 2004 by the Diocese of Orange in California.
  • $84 million for more than 350 people in 2006 by the Diocese of Covington, Ky.
  • $84 million for 552 claims in 2003 by the Archdiocese of Boston.

Nationally, the largest church sex-abuse settlement was announced in July 2007, when the Archdiocese of Los Angeles paid $660 million to resolve claims with more than 500 victims.