Judge allows evidence of arrests in church lawsuit

Associated Press/April 8, 2004

Dallas -- Sexual abuse victims suing a Dallas-based regional synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America can present evidence at trial related to a top synod official's three arrests on indecent exposure charges, an East Texas judge ruled Thursday.

Harrison County District Judge Bonnie Leggat issued an order denying a defense motion to exclude that information from a civil trial set to begin Tuesday in Marshall.

Leggat's order did not give a reason for her denial in a sexual abuse lawsuit brought by 14 victims of former Lutheran minister Gerald Patrick Thomas Jr., who was sentenced last year to 397 years in state prison for sexually assaulting boys.

Former bishop assistant Earl Eliason's background is relevant, the victims' attorneys say, because Eliason was in charge of pastor assignments in the denomination's Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod when Thomas was sent to Marshall's Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in 1997.

"Eliason's own sexual addiction impaired and compromised his judgment as a decision-making officer of the synod, especially with regards to the fitness and prior misconduct of Gerald Thomas," Edward L. Hohn, the plaintiffs' lead attorney, said in court papers.

The denomination's attorneys argued that all of Eliason's convictions -- in 1987, 1996 and 2003 -- resulted from no-contest pleas and should be inadmissible as evidence in a civil suit.

The synod is the last remaining defendant in the case after settlements were announced Wednesday between the victims and the Chicago-based denomination, the Ohio seminary that Thomas attended, a candidacy committee in Michigan, and the Marshall congregation, where Thomas worked until his arrest in 2001. The settlement is subject to the judge's approval at a hearing Monday. Details have not been disclosed.

Tracy Crawford, the synod's attorney, declined to discuss the case Thursday.

Asked why the synod was not a part of the settlement, Crawford said, "We don't think we owe anybody anything."

Reminiscent of complaints against the Roman Catholic hierarchy in recent years, the Thomas case is one of the most serious abuse lawsuits to hit a U.S. Protestant denomination. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has 5 million members.

Church officials have denied negligence, despite private memos that detailed Thomas' questionable behavior before he arrived in Marshall in 1997.

While allegedly aware of Thomas' "boundary issues" in seminary, the synod did not share details of Thomas' background with the Marshall congregation, court documents say.

In fact, Eliason sent a letter to a Marshall church leader in June 1997 congratulating the congregation on getting "a good, new pastor."

"Work toward a strong, trusting and loving relationship between pastor and people," Eliason wrote. "If both can help the other grow in faith, hope and love and serve the work of the Kingdom -- Christ will be honored and people will be strengthened in their spiritual walk."

Synod officials claim no one who worked with Eliason was aware of the bishop assistant's indecent exposure arrests until after the Thomas case broke.

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