Davenport diocese settles cases

A total of $9 million will be divided among men who alleged sexual abuse by priests.

Des Moines Register/October 29, 2004
By Shirley Ragsdale

The Davenport Catholic Diocese on Thursday announced a $9 million settlement with dozens of men who have claimed that they were sexually abused as children by priests or have sued, alleging such abuse.

The $9 million - a combination of diocese money and insurance payments - will be divided among the men who have filed 39 claims or lawsuits against the diocese.

Bishop William Franklin and the men's lawyer, Craig Levien, said the settlement sets specific criteria for how the money would be divided among the victims, but they would not describe those criteria.

Levien said the settlement does not affect the plaintiffs' lawsuits against individual priests, and they will go forward.

Compared to other dioceses across the country, the Davenport settlement, per person, is one of the larger group settlements. Although it will not be divided evenly, the average amount would be $230,769.

That compares with an average of $153,985 in the Boston Archdiocese, which settled with 552 people for $120 million, according to BishopAccountability.org, a Web site that documents articles and court documents on the U.S. Catholic priest abuse controversy.

In Providence, R.I., 36 people negotiated a $13.5 million settlement from the diocese, an average of $375,000 per person, according to the Web site.

Levien said each diocese is different because of its size and assets, so comparisons are difficult. Davenport diocese officials said earlier that the diocese has $10 million in assets, which are largely property.

"The brave survivors I have been honored to represent never sought to bankrupt the diocese and were always willing to compromise," Levien said.

"They also saw the greater good in standing together in support of each other. Their individual decency will never be known publicly but is something I will keep with me for the rest of my life."

The settlement, announced days before the first abuse lawsuit was to go to trial Monday, means the diocese avoids filing bankruptcy, which its leaders had threatened to do to avoid trial.

Diocese officials said they did not want to try the cases individually because they wanted to make equitable settlements to all known abuse victims. Thursday's agreement does not preclude other victims from seeking financial settlements from the diocese.

In announcing the settlement, Franklin apologized again to victims and said he hoped the settlement would help them and Catholics in the diocese begin to heal.

"The abuse was not the victim's fault," he said. "It was only reasonable that a child would trust a revered Catholic priest. Knowing what we know today, I cannot understand, explain or justify the decisions that were made years ago allowing such priests to continue to serve.

"Prior bishops are no longer living to explain their decisions. All I know for certain is that, in fact, we failed to protect children from harm. I am profoundly sorry and I express deep apology to the victims from the entire Catholic community. It is my hope that this settlement will help foster healing and forgiveness as well as help us to focus together on preventing this from ever happening again."

Levien said his clients, many of whom were abused as children in the 1950s and 1960s, had waited years for vindication, support and closure. "That wait is not over, but starting today, the wait will be shorter," he said.

He praised the abuse victims as well as the Catholics who supported them. "It's the survivors who bravely stepped forward to challenge this hidden wrong and the caring Catholics and parishioners who have encouraged our efforts to seek justice on behalf of the survivors," Levien said.

The settlement is another chapter in a two-year tale of controversy, confusion and missteps by diocesan leaders, who eventually changed course from legal stonewalling and strategic silence, to public apologies, candid reports and disciplinary action against five priests.

Along the way, Davenport became the most controversial of Iowa's four Catholic dioceses and gained national attention.

Internet Web sites such as BishopAccountability.org have more information about abusive Davenport priests and diocese efforts to protect them than many larger and more controversial dioceses because the judge hearing the Davenport cases made an unusual ruling and ordered the diocese to turn over all its records on abusive priests.

On Ash Wednesday this year, Franklin charted a new plan of action. Wearing a smear of ashes on his forehead, he announced that the diocese had 65 accusations of abuse against 20 priests and two lay workers since 1950.

He apologized to the victims and said he would seek to have the Vatican remove five men from priesthood: James Janssen, Francis Bass, Richard Poster, Frank Martinez Jr. and William Wiebler.

The request on Janssen, who is the most-sued Davenport priest and who has denied all the allegations, was expedited, and he was defrocked in September.

National victims advocate David Clohessy, who at one point called Davenport "the worst" diocese for abuse victims to deal with, said Thursday the settlement is a good resolution.

"I applaud the brave men and women - the victims and their families - for seeking justice. I hope this helps them find healing," said Clohessy, executive director for the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests.

Said Bonnie Campbell of Grand Mound, a parish that sent a public letter criticizing Franklin for failing to follow the diocese's own policies on dealing with abuse allegations: "It pleases us that the diocese decided to do right by its mistakes and offer to help victims, albeit belatedly."

The first lawsuit against Janssen was scheduled to go to trial Monday, but Levien said he would seek a continuance and ask the judge to combine all eight lawsuits against Janssen and set a late trial date.

Course of events

January 2002: The Boston Globe newspaper begins publishing a series of stories that document widespread patterns of sexual abuse by Catholic priests that was covered up by the archdiocese. The series earns the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize, raises the temperature on the simmering issue of abusive priests to a full boil across the country, and eventually prompts the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law.

June 2002: Pushed by the growing scandal and allegations and lawsuits from hundreds of victims in dioceses across the country, U.S. Catholic bishops meet behind closed doors in Dallas to draft policies to remove abusers from the clergy and and to protect children from future abuse.

March 2003: Richard Poster, a Davenport priest, is indicted by a federal grand jury and pleads guilty to charges of having pornography on his computer in the diocese offices. Diocese officials called police after finding "questionable files" on Poster's computer.

May 2003: The first John Doe lawsuit is filed against Rev. James Janssen, a retired priest who eventually would be named in eight of the 18 abuse lawsuits against the Davenport diocese.

November 2003: A national victims advocacy group calls the Davenport diocese "the worst" in the country in responding to victims' lawsuits.

November 2003: District Judge C.H. Pelton makes what national experts characterize as an unusual ruling in church abuse litigation and orders the diocese to turn over all its records related to abuse allegations to the plaintiffs' lawyer.

January 6, 2004: A national audit of clergy abuse over 50 years in all U.S. dioceses is released. Davenport is the only diocese that does not cooperate with auditors or send in a report.

January 19, 2004: The parish council of Sts. Philip and James Church in Grand Mound writes a public letter to Bishop William Franklin, criticizing him for failing to follow the diocese's own policies in handling abuse allegations. Franklin later meets with the council to hear their concerns.

February 25, 2004: Franklin apologizes publicly to victims for past abuse and issues a report saying the diocese has found 65 accusations of abuse against 20 priests and two lay workers since 1950. He says he will ask the Vatican to remove five men from priesthood: James Janssen, Francis Bass, Richard Poster, Frank Martinez Jr. and William Wiebler. Allegations against another four, including the diocese top administrator Vicar General Drake Shafer, are being investigated, he said.

September 2004: The Vatican removes Janssen from the priesthood.

October 28, 2004: Franklin and victims' lawyer Craig Levien announce that a $9 million settlement will be divided among several men who have sued or accused diocesan officials of sexual abuse. The settlement does not stop the men's civil lawsuits against individual priests, which will go forward, Levien says.

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