Litigation Liturgy

The Seattle Archdiocese is not about to confess.

IN CONTRAST WITH its self-proclaimed model policy of extending apologies, compassion, and counseling to victims of sexual abuse by priests, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle is no Father Nice Guy in the courtroom. "Hardball" is how one of the attorneys representing alleged victims describes the church's legal strategy. Facing 14 abuse lawsuits in King, Pierce, and Clark county superior courts, the archdiocese is denying all accusations and is vigorously defending its priests— including one, James McGreal, who, it concedes, is an admitted child molester. The church, which recently filed its first responses to some of the suits, seeks a protective order to prevent disclosure of its secret priest investigations and says it should not have to pay the alleged victims damages because the abuse was partly caused by their "own actions and/or omissions."

"I've been waiting for someone to notice the glaring difference in what the church says in public and how it acts behind the scenes," says Tacoma attorney Michael Pfau, who represents 15 alleged victims. He calls the magnitude of the Seattle scandal "staggering" and says more than 30 possible abuse victims have contacted him. "The archdiocese has made a decision to aggressively fight these cases, and that's their right. But the public should be aware of the flip side."

The Seattle Archdiocese has portrayed the sex scandal as nowhere comparable with those of dioceses elsewhere, and certainly not approaching that of the vastly larger Boston church. But from a single case in May, accusing popular priest John Cornelius of molesting a dozen youths, the Seattle scandal has widened to encompass at least nine Western Washington priests accused of molesting more than 45 boys and girls from the 1960s through the 1980s. (One is accused of sexually abusing a woman.)

With 18 plaintiffs seeking damages, by Pfau's count, Pfau calls Father McGreal "the real story in all this. His abuse was just egregious, and the church knew about him in the late '60s, maybe earlier, I think, and transferred him parish to parish." The church and McGreal both deny the accusations in court papers.

Pfau's claims have the archdiocese quietly seething. In court papers, church officials accuse him of "playing to the press" to pressure the archdiocese to settle. Pfau calls the charge "offensive and untrue."

"That the case is newsworthy is not the plaintiffs' fault," Pfau says.

ACTUALLY, CLAIMS PFAU, it's the archdiocese that is using questionable maneuvers, trying to stall the process. He is asking the court to force the church to respond to discovery requests, adding that the archdiocese "hasn't answered a single interrogatory or produced a single document in discovery" in five months.

The archdiocese will not directly comment on any legal action or on Pfau's comments. But another attorney familiar with the cases says the church's aggressive tack is understandable with millions of dollars in damages at stake. "It doesn't mean there won't be settlements down the road," he says. For that matter, in some current cases, the archdiocese seeks to hedge its liability by asking the court not to punish the church for any priest's "acts that were outside the scope of his duties"—acts such as molestation.

In court papers, the archdiocese, a nonprofit corporation, calls itself "a recognized leader among religious organizations in trying to protect and heal victims of abuse and addressing concerns over detection of pedophilia." It has publicly called itself a pioneer in using more-liberal means to handle abuse cases and has turned over some cases to police (although the statute of limitations on applicable sex crimes, seven years, apparently has expired).

The church has not, however, divulged any documents on priestly probes or revealed what it paid in past legal settlements. A church spokesperson last week would not say whether Seattle would follow the example of the Spokane Diocese, which recently turned over to police more than 30 reports of alleged abuse, naming six living and six dead priests. Spokane Bishop William Skylstad said he revealed the names in the belief the claims were true.

It's unclear whether accusations against McGreal were ever referred to police. He has never been criminally charged, although he and the archdiocese have settled at least one past civil lawsuit that alleged sexual assault. Now reportedly living in Missouri, McGreal, 79, retired in 1988 when earlier abuse allegations against him were made public. In current lawsuits, he is alleged to have assaulted altar boys and other youths he mentored during his 40-year church service at a dozen parishes and Catholic hospitals, including St. Catherine's Parish in Seattle from 1971 to 1977.

ALLEGED VICTIMS SAY they were molested in the confessional, in the parish garage, and in McGreal's parish bedroom, often after he got the boys drunk on wine. He kissed and fondled the youths and exposed them to pornography, they claim.

According to court papers, parents of several of the youths reported McGreal's alleged abuse to the archdiocese in the 1970s, and one met with then-Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen. But the incidents were swept away. In court papers, the archdiocese "denies that it failed to follow up or fully investigate the [parents'] complaint" and says of McGreal's parish-to-parish transfers only that he was "provided counseling for a variety of personal issues [and] eventually [was] cleared for a limited return to some priestly activity."

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