KC Diocese is ordered to pay $1.1 million for violating contract with sex abuse victims

07/01/2014 9:25 AM

07/01/2014 8:39 PM

Six years after reaching a $10 million settlement with victims of sexual abuse, the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph has been ordered to pay $1.1 million for violating terms of the contract.

The order, issued by arbitrator Hollis Hanover, stems from a breach-of-contract lawsuit filed nearly 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 44 of the 47 plaintiffs from the earlier case. The plaintiffs asked a judge to force the diocese to arbitration to ensure that it had complied with the reforms agreed upon in the settlement.

The issue that sparked their concerns was the diocese’s failure to immediately report the Rev. Shawn Ratigan after finding hundreds of disturbing images of young girls on the priest’s laptop computer in late 2010.

In his highly critical order, Hanover found that the diocese had breached five of the terms of the 2008 agreement. He noted that the plaintiffs could have sought to declare the contract void and collect what likely would have been “a far larger award.”

“They have instead opted to seek damages for these noted breaches and to maintain the contract in force for the protection of children in the future,” Hanover wrote. “I here honor their preference and join in their hope that I am dead wrong in my opinion that this Diocese as presently constituted will not mend its ways.”

The diocese said Tuesday that because the matter was pending, it could not comment beyond what was submitted to the court in a motion it filed to vacate the order. In that motion, the diocese said that Hanover had exceeded his authority.

“There were no contractual terms under the express arbitration provisions of the 2008 Settlement Agreement which allowed the Arbitrator to award monetary damages beyond the $10M agreed to by the parties almost six years following the dismissals of Plaintiffs’ lawsuits with prejudice and Plaintiffs’ execution of general releases,” the diocese wrote in a court filing.

The diocese also asked the court to modify the award because it contained “a number of factual errors, inaccuracies and unsupported inferences.”

In his order, Hanover awarded damages of $650,000 to the plaintiffs, $450,000 to the attorneys and $5,820 for counseling of sex abuse victims that the diocese had not paid.

Some victims, however, said the breach lawsuit was never about money.

“We felt that they just wanted to get this situation over with, so they agreed to the contract in 2008 just to get it off the table and out of the media,” said Robert Bates, one of the plaintiffs. “But since then, their behavior had been business as usual.

“We have children being molested in organized religion. This was to bring awareness and to keep it from ever happening again.”

Rebecca Randles, an attorney for the plaintiffs, called the breach-of-contract case unprecedented.

“To bring a breach-of-contract claim involving a settlement in a priest sexual abuse case has never happened before,” she said.

She also said: “This gives us one more weapon in our arsenal to keep children from being harmed.”

The order was issued March 23 but was to remain confidential by law until the parties either moved to confirm or vacate it. The diocese had 90 days to decide whether to fight the ruling and did so on June 20, filing a motion to vacate the order.

The diocese’s motion, along with the plaintiffs’ motion to confirm the arbitrator’s order, now will go before a Jackson County district judge.

The lawsuit grew out of a sexual abuse case filed years ago against 12 priests or former priests in the diocese. A $10 million settlement was reached in 2008 that included 19 nonmonetary commitments, such as establishing victim advocacy programs and immediately reporting any abuse or suspicion of abuse to law enforcement authorities.

But after Ratigan was arrested in May 2011 on child pornography charges, the plaintiffs filed the breach-of-contract lawsuit, saying that the diocese broke the agreement by failing for almost a year to report allegations and concerns about Ratigan 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.

The plaintiffs then demanded that the case go to arbitration.

In a separate, criminal case, a Jackson County judge in 2012 found Bishop Finn guilty of failing to report suspicions of child abuse to police or state child welfare authorities after the Ratigan photographs were discovered.

Finn was sentenced to two years of probation for the misdemeanor. Ratigan pleaded guilty to five child pornography charges and was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

In his order, Hanover included Finn’s statement from August 2008 in which he said the diocese agreed to a number of stipulations “that should assure our community, our congregation and these families that the diocese will continue in its exercise of vigilance and in its devotion to training and education so that we may be confident that there will never, ever be a repeat of the behaviors, the offenses or the claims that have been associated with this matter.”

But the diocese failed to abide by those intentions, Hanover said.

“Based on its behavior as revealed in this record, it is my opinion and finding that the Diocese, with its leadership and higher level personnel and their unavoidable biases and ingrained priorities, 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,” he wrote.

Other breaches of the agreement, Hanover ruled, included making it too difficult for some victims to receive counseling, not training the entire staff on the prevention of sexual abuse and harassment, and failing to follow the law regarding the reporting of child sexual abuse.

Hanover also found that the diocese breached its agreement to not provide a recommendation for any priest who had been credibly accused of sexual abuse. That breach happened, he said, when Finn sent Ratigan to work with the Sisters of St. Francis after placing restrictions on the priest’s activities.

“The ‘restrictions’ placed on Fr. Ratigan by Bishop Finn lead me to conclude and find that Bishop Finn believed Fr. Ratigan to be a pornographer specializing in diocesan children as models,” Hanover wrote. “His belief was well justified, but he concealed it from the Sisters.”

Hanover did give high marks to the diocese’s Victim Advocacy Program that was implemented as part of the 2008 agreement.

“The Victim Advocacy Program of the Diocese is entirely admirable…” he wrote. “It is staffed by competent employees and contractors.”

In response to the Ratigan case, the diocese implemented changes and reforms to guide its handling of reports of child sexual abuse and commissioned an internal investigation to address the concerns. The reforms included the appointment of an ombudsman to receive and investigate all reports of sexual misconduct or suspicious behavior by clergy and others in the diocese.

But in his order, Hanover said the diocese hadn’t done enough.

“I have heard evidence that these victims suffered terribly from the abandonment with which they believed their beloved Church treated them,” Hanover wrote. “Where they expected protection, they received desertion; where the assertion of authority on their behalf was required, they received betrayal.”

To those plaintiffs, he said, the thought of other children suffering such betrayal was a reason they had established the nonmonetary terms of the 2008 agreement.

“When it came to light that the Diocese had once again sacrificed the welfare of children so that it could ‘save the priesthood’ of a criminal, in this case a pornographer,” Hanover wrote, “damage was inflicted on these plaintiffs in the precise form that the contractual terms were intended to prevent.”

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

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