Area man tells of abuse

Has been dogged in pursuit of priest

The Independent, Arizona/July 23, 2007
By The Independent, Arizona

Winslow, Arizona — One of the plaintiffs in a civil lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Diocese of Gallup has remained intensely private since coming forward with his allegations against former Diocese of Gallup priest James Burns.

He has declined requests for personal interviews and has only communicated with The Independent through e-mails. As a victim of sexual abuse, he has requested that his identity be protected.

However, he has been very dogged in his pursuit of Burns through the legal system. In addition to filing the civil lawsuit in California in 2003, he filed a criminal complaint against Burns with the Winslow Police Department. As a result, Navajo Country prosecutors filed charges against Burns in May 2004, which led to a plea agreement and a short Arizona prison stint. When Burns failed to show up on the Arizona Department of Public Safety's sex offender Web site, the victim requested The Independent look into the situation.

After the settlement with the Los Angeles Archdiocese was announced earlier this week, The Independent contacted the plaintiff for comment.

In a July 17 e-mail, the plaintiff declined to disclose the settlement amount he would receive from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. However, he called it "substantial" and said he would use it to set up a trust fund for his children. He expressed satisfaction that the Los Angeles Archdiocese chose to settle and said he believes the financial impact on the church would have been much worse if it had chosen to go to trial.

However, he is not satisfied with the criminal penalties that Burns received in Arizona.

"I'm really bothered by what was imposed," he wrote, "he was given two terms of 18 months (due to a plea bargain) to be served concurrently and hence released early (under a year) for good behavior and does not have to file as a registered sex offender because the system doesn't feel that he is a threat."

According to Arizona Department of Corrections officials, because Burns pleaded guilty to crimes that were committed in the 1980s, his incarceration was regulated by "old code" laws from the 1980s that allowed inmates to earn one day of "credit" for every two "good days" served in prison. Burns does have to register as a sex offender under Arizona law, but because he is classified as a Level 1 offender, he is exempt from inclusion on the Arizona Department of Public Safety's sex offender Web site.

The plaintiff also stated the Arizona criminal penalties did not provide justice for his mother, who he said was devastated to learn of the abuse.

"She feels totally to blame here," he stated. "Burns was our priest when my father passed away and she felt that Burns would be a good role model ... for me while I was growing up."

Now in his 30s, with three failed marriages behind him, the plaintiff said he sometimes wonders about the toll the abuse may have caused in his personal life.

He also expressed disappointment that other victims of Burns didn't file criminal complaints or civil lawsuits. At the very least, such actions might have raised Burns' classification level under the Arizona sex offenders registry system. The plaintiff, who said he doesn't believe Burns feels any remorse, said he understands "it's a very hard thing to do to come forward and tell the authorities" about sexual abuse. "That is why I kept it a secret for over 20 years," he said, adding that he came to the realization that Burns "was going to get away with it" if he didn't come forward.

He also expressed cynicism about the motives of church officials. Although he noted that Bishop Donald Pelotte came to Winslow to hold Mass for the victims of clergy abuse, he wondered "how many of his lawyers told him to do that or if he really did it on his own sincerity."

"I'm really embarrassed for the Catholic Church," he concluded, "as you may have read that the pope has recently come out with the 10 commandments for driving. Driving? ... He is focusing on our driving habits when all of this clergy abuse is going on, makes me really wonder where their priorities are."

The plaintiff said he hasn't been in a Catholic Church for over 10 years and probably won't go in the future. "How can I go?" he asked, adding that he would find himself wondering if the priest is a pedophile.

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