Forty years later, former altar boys settle lawsuit against Diocese

Santa Cruz Sentinel/January 7, 2007
By Peggy Townsend

Kim Allyn had waited more than 40 years for that September day.

"I just thought, 'OK, this is the moment,' " says the muscled, 6-foot-5 deputy sheriff of the day last year when he and five co-defendants sat around a long table and signed documents settling their lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Monterey.

The suit alleged the diocese had known Irish-born Father Patrick McHugh, who was assigned to St. John's Catholic Church from 1963 to 1979, was a serial pedophile and that he had been transferred from the Central Valley to the quiet town of Felton where he could basically be forgotten.

Only, the men charged, Father McHugh, who died in 1979, did things there they will never forget.

The men, all former altar boys now in their late 40s and early 50s, say the priest fondled them as they studied Latin, as they lay sick in their bedroom and when they spent the night at the rectory so they could serve Mass early the next day.

The attacks, they said, scared and shamed them.

The lawsuit wended its way through the court system and was tossed out by a judge, but was later appealed. In the end, the church and the men settled the lawsuit for a total of $1.5 million and the promise of lifetime counseling — one of three clergy abuse cases that have been settled by the Diocese of Monterey so far.

Two of the six men say they are glad the case is over, that it brought a certain closure for them.

A diocese spokesman said he wished the men "the very best"

"I always wanted accountability," says Allyn, who became an unofficial spokesman for the men and an investigator in the case, "because it was so horrible what he did to me"

End of innocence

Allyn was a skinny, eager-to-please kid of 11 or 12 when the short, bespectacled McHugh began molesting him, he says. The priest would throw coins on the ground and challenge him and other altar boys to pick them up without bending their legs. Then, McHugh would press his body behind them, telling the boys it was to make sure their legs stayed straight.

Sometimes the priest, says the now-54-year-old Allyn, would call him into a counseling room and fondle him under the guise of checking his legs.

Jerry Crow, now a local landscaper, remembered similar incidents, including the time McHugh fondled him as he lay sick in his bedroom while his parents sat in the next room.

He was 11 or 12, he says.

He never told them about it.

Allyn did tell his father about the fondlings but his dad didn't want to believe him, he says.

It was an era when people didn't acknowledge those things and, like most of the church's 250 parishioners, Allyn's father regarded McHugh as a respected priest who had helped raise enough money to build an addition to the wooden church off Highway 9 in Felton.

Not only that, but Allyn's father owned the bakery in town "and after noon Mass was the biggest time for us," Allyn says. "It kept us in business. My dad didn't want to believe me. No one talked about what was going on"

The attacks destroyed Allyn's relationship with his father, he says.

"And I had always, in my mind, wanted to hold the church accountable for that," he says.

Window opens

In June 2002, three of the men told their stories to the Santa Cruz Sentinel but said they did not plan to sue. The statute of limitations had closed on the alleged crimes.

But in January 2003, with reports of abuse surfacing across the country, that changed. A new law opened a one-year window for victims of sexual abuse to file lawsuits. But plaintiffs had to prove that the church either knew, or had reason to know, of the abuse and did nothing to stop it, according to Jean Starcevich of San Jose, a lawyer for two of the men

In February 2003, four of the men filed suit asking for $10 million in damages. By the end of that year, the plaintiffs included Allyn, Crow, William Collins, Dennis Sinnott and two John Does.

A few months later, the Diocese of Monterey reported that since 1967 there had been 17 clerics accused of sexual misconduct with a child. Out of the 17 claims, the diocese said, four weren't credible and in the other cases, the cleric was either dead, out of the ministry or the events were so long ago it "could not determine the merits of the claim"

It also had adopted something called the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which set up an independent review board; a code of moral conduct for clergy, lay workers and volunteers; a system of criminal background checks; reporting regulations and education programs.

The letters

The men's case hung on letters McHugh had written to his bishop while he was working in the Central Valley. In the letters, McHugh complained of being lonely and having a "roaming mind," Starcevich says.

"You tell me to trust a little more in gods...then you suggest a TV so that my mind may roam," a 1955 letter from McHugh read ellipses are McHugh's. "...Up here we throw guys in the clink or in Stockton with roaming minds. What a remedy for a poor so-and-so trying to stay decent, to work for God and pay bills...and keep alive"

The attorneys argued the mention of being thrown in the "clink" was evidence of something worse than being an alcoholic or having an affair with an adult.

The lawyers also contacted an 84-year-old retired priest who was a member of a religious order called Servants of the Paraclete. The Paracletes treated troubled priests, including a time from the mid- to late-50s when they treated priests accused of sexual misconduct, including pedophilia, court documents said. Sometimes the Servants of the Paraclete were asked by bishops to travel to parishes as an anonymous troubleshooter — often not knowing what they were being sent to investigate.

In 1958, the retired Paraclete said, he was sent to McHugh's parish at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Taft, at the request of the bishop although he did not know why. He stayed for about a month before McHugh ordered him to leave.

Paperwork detailing the assignment was never found, says Starcevich, who introduced testimony that the Servants of the Paraclete had been ordered to destroy reports for legal reasons in the late '80s.

Church officials denied intentionally destroying documents.

'Tenuous' evidence

The diocese said it handed over the files it had for McHugh, who died of a heart attack at the age of 65, and argued the plaintiffs had not shown evidence of McHugh's prior sexual misconduct, nor that the church knew of the abuse in Felton.

"...A reasonable reading of the evidence indicated the Diocese did not know, nor should it have known, anything about the priest in question," says Kevin Drabinski, a spokesman for the Monterey Diocese.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw dismissed the men's lawsuit in October 2004. He said the evidence "was just too tenuous for him," according to Starcevich.

After the men appealed, both sides met for talks and agreed on the $1.5 million settlement.

Of the nine sexual abuse cases that the Monterey Diocese eventually faced, three have been settled and two are pending. The diocese was dismissed as a defendant from four other cases that involved other dioceses in the state.

Nationally, the clergy abuse scandal has cost the Catholic Church more than $1.5 billion in settlements, legal fees and related costs, according to a 2006 report by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Late last week, the Spokane Catholic Diocese in Washington agreed to pay $48 million to those molested by priests, while last month the Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., said it would pay $75 million in settlements, according to The Associated Press The largest settlement in the abuse scandal was paid by the Orange County Diocese, which gave $100 million to 87 claimants in 2005.

David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, estimates there may be 1,000 cases pending nationwide. The majority of cases, he says, are settled by the church and do not go to trial.

"One of the interests of the diocese is being able to draw to a conclusion as many cases as possible and we were pleased in this instance that all the parties were able to come to a mutually acceptable agreement," says Drabinski of the settlement.

The sexual abuse scandals, which began in 2002, are still being felt by the church, he says. "The only proper response for the Catholic Church," Drabinski said, "is to make sure this never happens again to children in our care"


Allyn, sipping a green tea in a downtown coffee shop, says the molests changed him from being a happy kid to a damaged one.

"Subconsciously, I was full of inadequacy, shame, of being dirty," he says, even though, as boys, they joked about it among themselves sometimes.

The feelings rippled through his life.

He became a deputy sheriff: "No one stood up for me, and I knew I could stand up for the victims," he says.

He became a world-class bodybuilder for the approval it brought: "It was another tool to fight the inner feelings, the inadequacies," says Allyn.

It was only when he sat down with a counselor, who pointed a finger at him and asked if he had ever been molested, that the truth came out, he says.

"I shut it down so far, I didn't think it had affected me," he says.

But it had.

Allyn is now undergoing regular counseling — a step which he believes saved him.

"I'm rebuilding myself," he says.

Crow says he had "pretty low self-esteem for a while, but I was lucky to have so many friends" He went to counseling for a short time and is still "a little bitter" about the church not taking full responsibility for McHugh.

Still, he says, "I think we won the case because it settled"

Crow and Allyn bought new cars, helped family members, made donations and paid bills with their settlements. But, both men say, it was never about the money.

"It was such a huge thing to happen to you," Allyn says, "What dollar amount do you put on that?"

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