Judge confirms that KC diocese must pay $1.1 million in breach of contract case

08/14/2014 5:13 PM

08/14/2014 6:33 PM

The Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese must pay the $1.1 million ordered by an arbitrator last spring for violating the terms of a 2008 settlement with priest sexual abuse victims, a judge has ruled.

Calling the award a “scathing indictment of the defendant,” Jackson County Circuit Judge Bryan Round said in his ruling that “there can be no doubt that the diocese, through its leadership and higher-level personnel, failed in numerous respects to abide by the terms” of the 2008 agreement. Those terms included immediately reporting any abuse or suspicion of abuse to law enforcement authorities — something the diocese failed to do in the child pornography case of the Rev. Shawn Ratigan in 2010.

Round issued the ruling late Wednesday, three weeks after hearing arguments in the case. The plaintiffs had asked him to confirm the arbitrator’s order, while the diocese had argued that it be vacated.

“The order is, once again, an indictment of the way the diocese has handled issues of childhood sexual abuse,” said Rebecca Randles, an attorney for the plaintiffs. She praised the plaintiffs for having “done so much to try to protect children from the kind of abuse they experienced.”

The diocese issued a statement Thursday saying that as part of the 2008 settlement, it had agreed to implement or continue policies and procedures designed to protect children.

The statement said that “while the diocese disputes many of the arbitrator’s findings and opinions, it will continue to honor its pledge to provide a safe and protective environment to children and other vulnerable persons.”

Anyone suspecting abuse should report it to the Missouri Child Abuse Hotline at 800-392-3738 and to local police, the diocese said. If the suspected abuser works or volunteers for the church, reporters should contact diocesan ombudsman Jenifer Valenti at 816-812-2500, the statement said.

The $1.1 million award, ordered March 23 by arbitrator Hollis Hanover, stems from a breach of contract lawsuit filed three years ago alleging that the diocese and Bishop Robert Finn violated parts of the 2008 settlement, putting children in danger.

The lawsuit was filed in Jackson County Circuit Court by most of the plaintiffs from the 2008 case.

The plaintiffs pointed to the diocese’s failure to immediately report Ratigan after finding hundreds of disturbing images of young girls on the priest’s laptop computer in late 2010. They contended that the diocese broke the 2008 agreement by failing for almost a year to report allegations and concerns about Ratigan‘s behavior to police, withholding evidence of possible child pornography from law enforcement for months and leaving another credibly accused priest in a parish for nearly two years.

A Jackson County judge in 2012 found Finn guilty of failing to report suspicions of child abuse to police or state child welfare authorities in the Ratigan case. Finn was sentenced to two years of probation for the misdemeanor. Ratigan pleaded guilty to state and federal child pornography charges and is serving 50 years in prison.

In issuing the award, Hanover found that the diocese had breached five of 19 non-monetary terms of the 2008 agreement. He said he hoped “that I am dead wrong in my opinion that this diocese as presently constituted will not mend its ways.”

The diocese argued at a July 23 hearing that Hanover had exceeded his authority. There were no provisions in the 2008 settlement that allowed Hanover to award monetary damages beyond the $10 million that was agreed upon by the parties, diocesan attorneys said. They also said that awarding additional monetary damages nullified the non-economic commitments the diocese had agreed to in the settlement. The diocese also argued that Hanover’s award contained factual errors and unsupported inferences.

In his ruling, Round rejected all of the diocese’s arguments and said the arbitrator’s findings could be best summarized by a passage from the award.

The diocese, the award said, “was and is constitutionally incapable of placing the preservation and protection of the clergy culture in a subordinate position to any other consideration, including the timely reporting to law enforcement of a priest involved in the use of diocesan children as pornography models.”

To reach Judy L. Thomas, call 816-234-4334 or send email to jthomas@kcstar.com.

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