Former priest settles lawsuits

QC Times/May 17, 2005
By Todd Ruger

A retired priest of the Catholic Diocese of Davenport agreed Monday to pay a confidential sum of money to settle the three remaining civil lawsuits by men accusing him of sexually abusing them as children decades ago.

The Rev. Francis Bass, 82, who served as a parish priest in the diocese from 1948 to 1992, apologized in a court statement filed Monday in the lawsuit brought by Steven Davis of Wisconsin in 2003.

“To Steven Davis and others I may have harmed, I apologize,” Bass said in a statement made under oath. “I hope this statement will assist in the healing process.”

The statement by Bass, who at one time faced five lawsuits, makes him the second priest of the diocese to settle a civil lawsuit alleging sexual abuse.

It comes one week after a Scott County jury awarded $1.9 million to James Wells of Bettendorf in a similar lawsuit against his uncle, former diocese priest James Janssen.

Davenport attorney Craig Levien said he was “extremely proud” of Davis for coming forward to file the lawsuit, which had been scheduled to go to trial May 31.

“He named his name, publicly confronted Bass,” Levien said. “And as a result of his efforts, we believe Bass signed what was an acceptance of responsibility of his actions.”

Davis’ lawsuit claimed Bass fondled him on several occasions beginning in 1982, when Davis was an altar boy at St. Patrick’s Parish in Delmar, Iowa.

The abuse happened when he was about 14 years old after the priest befriended him and his parents and gained consent for the boy to spend time alone with the priest, the lawsuit states.

Bass denied the claims in court records, and his statement filed Monday does not include any direct admission of abuse.

“Given the number and nature of the claims and the extent of the evidence supporting them,” Bass said in the statement, “I have concluded that it is not likely that I can prevail on the merits and that it is in my interest and the interest of all that these claims be resolved.”

Bass’ attorney, Michael McCarthy, said the priest wanted to avoid the cost and notoriety of going to trial, especially with the nature of the allegations.

“It’s a settlement like most cases end up,” McCarthy said. “We Catholics are also Christians. To be Christian is to forgive, and hopefully, some of that can be accomplished here.”

Bass says Mass every day and expects to live out the rest of his days without the stress of the lawsuit like this, McCarthy said.

“At some point, you know, he’s an old man, he’s tired, he wants to put it behind him,” he said.

Levien said Davis has been extremely troubled throughout his life because of what happened to him, and he is currently receiving professional help.

“This acceptance of responsibility should help him in his healing of his mental health, far more than a trial would,” Levien said.

He said that of the 37 claimants who received part of a $9 million settlement with the diocese about six months ago, Davis and 13 others accused Bass of sexual abuse occurring decades ago.

Davis and two men identified in court documents only as “John Doe II” and “John Doe VII” continued to pursue their lawsuit against Bass after the settlement with the diocese, while two other men also identified as “John Doe” dropped their lawsuits against Bass at that time.

A report by Bishop William Franklin stated the vast majority of the sexual abuse allegations it received since 1950 are against three priests — Bass, the Rev. William Wiebler and Janssen, who was removed from the priesthood by the Vatican in July. The diocese also recommended that the Vatican remove Bass from the priesthood.

The diocese reported that the Vatican decided that “in light of the fact that Bass is retired and advanced in age,” Franklin should oblige him to “lead a life of prayer and penance, and to privately offer Holy Mass once a week for the remainder of his days in reparation for the crimes he has committed.”

Franklin said he ordered Bass to not have contact with youth, celebrate sacraments in public, wear a Roman collar or present himself as a priest in public.

Bass also must inform the diocese of any change of address, submit reports of his activities, meet with diocesan officials on a regular basis and submit to random visits from diocesan officials.

The lawsuits against Bass will be dismissed after the money is paid, Levien said.

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