Louisville, Ky. -- In the beginning, there was only Mike Turner, a prosperous construction company owner, who allowed his name to be made public along with his embarrassing memories of having been sexually violated as a boy by his parish priest.
Then, Mr. Turner began getting phone calls, and 10 men came forward with similar tales, then 20 more, one after another in a cascading effect.
In the month since Mr. Turner went public with a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Louisville, this heavily Catholic area has been shocked to see more than 90 men bring shame-steeped complaints against 14 priests, a deacon and a lay parochial school teacher. The complaints cover a 25-year period that crested in the mid-1980's.
"This is only the beginning: we've uncovered a pustule here," said William McMurry, the lawyer for the assorted accusers. They amount to a cross-section of Louisville's solid middle class suddenly emboldened to sue the archdiocese on the grounds that it encouraged the abuses by protecting and reassigning the offending priests.
"Four doctors, a lawyer, an investment banker, a radio personality and more," Mr. McMurry noted. "I told them I would not take their cases unless they were willing to see their names go public."
Mr. McMurry chose this open strategy not only to bolster the victims' mutual strength and credibility but also to counteract an unusual new Kentucky law by which the Archdiocese of Louisville is moving to have the details of each of these lawsuits sealed by the courts.
The law, effective in 1999 in the name of protecting minors, provides for sealing the records of any molestation case involving incidents five or more years old. The law is being challenged by Mr. McMurry and his clients as well as by The Courier-Journal of Louisville as an impediment to a proper airing of the full damage to Louisville Catholics in the sexual abuse scandal now convulsing the American Catholic Church.
Archbishop Thomas Cajetan Kelly, who has headed this diocese of 200,000 Catholics and 180 priests for 20 years, has apologized to victims for "terrible wrongs" and for not understanding "the dimensions of the problem" until recent years.
The archbishop said legal restrictions meant he could not reach out to those suing the diocese. "We will have to meet them in the sometimes contentious civil arena," he said.
Of the church's move to seal the documents, Dr. Boswell Tabler, 52, a psychiatrist who recently came forward to accuse a priest of abuse, said, "The church says they're doing this to protect us, when in fact, I think it's to protect themselves."
"It takes years to come to grips with the fact that you're the victim, not the perpetrator," said Dr. Tabler, who said he had endured years of secrecy and anguish.
In parochial school, Dr. Tabler said, he knew other boys who told of abuse, discussing an offending priest in oblique terms. Years later, Dr. Tabler is on the phone with them. "Now it's, `You're coming forward? I am, too,' " he said.
The lawsuits describe a few boys who complained and were threatened by parish officials as vulgar liars. Two pediatrician parents believed their son and found two other abused boys but were rebuffed in disbelief by those boys' parents, according to another suit.
"I should have done this 26 years ago," said James R. Pierce, 38, a mechanic angry that he has been silent until now. "This is such a worthy cause. It's my time to speak out for that little boy within me that's been screaming and screaming, `Defend me!' "
In tears, Mr. Pierce recounted being 12 when his father was dying and a priest who prayed at the hospital sickbed convinced his mother that he could comfort the boy. Two hours of sexual abuse followed at the priest's apartment, Mr. Pierce said, along with a warning that no one would believe him if he complained.
"That priest is the one that gave my dad his last rites," Mr. Pierce said, describing the aspect that he said haunted him most and impelled him finally to disclose his past.
The mounting damage suits have reached beyond this area to the Diocese of Lexington, where Bishop J. Kendrick Williams announced this week that he would take a leave from his duties after being accused in one damage suit of abusing a child while he was a curate in Louisville.
"I am stunned and saddened by this accusation," Bishop Williams said in a statement in which he expressed confidence of exoneration. "Let me state this simply: The allegations are false."
The archdiocese has declined to comment on the civil suits but it has suspended two pastors and restricted three other priests.
The police are looking into the accusations for evidence of crimes.
Mr. McMurry is convinced that church lawyers will not be able to impeach the multiple tales of abuse from his varied clients. They come from affluent and working-class neighborhoods, most of the victims with families, some warily raising their own children in the church.
More like a detective than a lawyer, Mr. McMurry pores over an elaborate computer printout tracking each case by priest, parish and victim down to such minute details as the name of the nun who is said to have reacted to 10-year-old James C. Hess's complaint of priestly abuse by telling him, "Go home and pray and never speak of this again."
The diocese has filed a motion to seal the court records in these suits, citing a need to protect both victims and those accused and publicly identified before the evidence is in.
Mr. McMurry contends that the church is trying to suppress the full dimension of the scandal. The Courier-Journal has filed a motion to intervene, complaining that victims' First Amendment rights are being violated by what the paper editorialized as "the Catholic Church's deplorable lack of openness."
Mr. Turner, the first complainant Mr. McMurry persuaded to go public, said in past years he could never imagine doing such a thing.
"For you to go up and tell anybody that a priest did something to you, you might as well say God did it to you," Mr. Turner said.
"That is absolutely correct," Dr. Tabler said. "We are taught the priest is God's representative on earth."
Mr. McMurry likens the situation to an archaeological dig. "As we blow the dust back," he said, "The ugliness of what we have discovered is so hard for people to accept."
In his latest message to the faithful, Archbishop Kelly promised improvement. "I sin; our priests sin; all of us sin," the archbishop said. "Christ did not come to this world to redeem perfect, holy people."