Suit alleges Catholic schools withheld evidence of abuse

Seattle Post-Intelligencer/March 18, 2009

Seven former students at Seattle-area Catholic schools have filed suit against the archdiocese, claiming the church order operating the schools withheld crucial evidence of clergy abuse during earlier lawsuits.

In three actions, former students of O'Dea High School in Seattle and a now closed Kent orphanage allege that officials with the order affiliated with the schools, the Christian Brothers of Ireland, failed to release documentation showing that two priests had previously sexually abused students. Each of the plaintiffs had previously settled with the order and the Seattle Catholic Archdiocese, but now assert that they would have pursued the litigation had the information on the decades-old abuses been available.

In one of the cases, officials with the Christian Brothers initially denied the accused priest had ever served in Washington, said Michael Pfau, a Seattle attorney representing all seven clients. Only after the case was settled did they provide documentation from Rome showing the priest had been kicked out of the order following abuse allegations, he said.

"It really begs the question about whether the comments made by church leaders about transparency are accurate or not," Pfau said. "We don't know if they are at this point."

At issue in two of the cases is former O'Dea teacher Edward Courtney, a disgraced priest who was forced from teaching in 1988 after at least 31 years as an educator with the order.

In court documents, six of Courtney's former students allege that he sexually abused them while he was a teacher at O'Dea in the 1960s and 1970s.

Courtney left O'Dea in 1976 to enroll at a Canadian sex offender rehabilitation program, according to court documents. He returned to the area two years later, holding positions at Our Lady of the Lake school in Wedgewood and St. Alphonsus Parish school in Ballard before being convicted of a sex crime in 1988.

In 2004, Pfau's clients filed suit against the Christian Brothers order and the Seattle Archdiocese claiming that church authorities failed in their duties to protect students from a known sexual predator. As a result of the action, the order and archdiocese were ordered to surrender any documentation regarding abuse perpetrated by Courtney.

Pfau now contends in court papers that the church withheld key documents either intentionally or through negligence. Lacking that information, Pfau said, his clients settled for smaller payments then they otherwise would have received.

"We're not accusing these defendants of fraud, per say," Pfau said. "Whether it was fraud or poor bookkeeping, we don't know. But what we're saying is that the defendants had information in their possession that they were required to provide to us that they didn't."

Repeated calls to a Seattle Archdiocese spokesman were not returned Wednesday.

Asked to elaborate on the new evidence, Pfau declined to comment in detail because of concerns about the ongoing litigation.

Similar revelations prompted another clergy abuse survivor to file a second suit against the Christian Brothers and the archdiocese for sexual assaults he endured while at the Briscoe Memorial School, a church-run orphanage formerly located in Kent.

In that case, the former attendee claimed he'd been abused by Brother George Dwyer while enrolled at the orphanage in the 1940s.

Facing the allegations, officials with the order initially denied that Dwyer had ever worked at the school, Pfau said. When photos of the priest surfaced through litigation, the order began to claim that no evidence existed that Dwyer had abused children.

With very little evidence to support his claim, Pfau's client opted to settle with the order. Month later, Pfau said, the order released documents from a Rome archive showing Dwyer had been expelled from the Christian Brothers in 1947 following an investigation into allegations of sexual abuse.

Without offering details, Pfau said all seven clients expect to see a "significant" increase in the amount of compensation they receive, more than additional compensation. More than that, though, he said they want to see justice done for the abuse they suffered as children.

"It's not just about the money. They're really angry," Pfau said. "They went through a very difficult litigation process, and they believe they were not treated fairly."

Neither the order nor the archdiocese has responded to the lawsuits, which have been filed in King County Superior Court.

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