The Plain Dealer, Apr. 13, 2003
James F. McCarty, Plain Dealer Reporter
The newest lawsuit in the past year’s unprecedented wave of sex-abuse litigation against the Cleveland Catholic Diocese could prove to be the most contentious yet.
Rocky River attorney Jay Milano filed a civil racketeering lawsuit against the diocese on Thursday, saying he will seek access to records never before viewed by laymen outside the locked vaults in Cathedral Square.
Milano wants to see the secret file of every priest who works in the eight-county diocese, plus financial records from all of the different corporations the diocese owns and operates – businesses that Milano contends are used to hide and protect property, and to shield assets.
A Massachusetts judge’s order to open secret church records of the Boston Archdiocese last year – and the subsequent publication of the information – is considered the deciding event that launched the crisis in the Catholic Church in America.
The problems in the Cleveland diocese came to light in March 2002 after a series of stories appeared in The Plain Dealer.
In the year since then, people who say they were victimized by priests have filed 16 new lawsuits against the church – more than were filed in any previous year.
Lawyers in the cases say they have encountered a more open-minded reception from judges, many of whom in the past would routinely throw out the cases at the first opportunity.
But with the new cases, all but two have thus far survived legal challenges by diocesan lawyers.
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judges Kenneth Callahan, Timothy McCormick, John O’Donnell and Joseph Russo each have denied diocesan lawyers’ motions to dismiss sex-abuse cases.
“I think they [the diocesan lawyers] are probably shocked. I am thrilled,” said lawyer Rick Sommers, who represents a Cleveland woman in a lawsuit against the diocese filed in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court.
Recently, signs have appeared that the diocese is softening past legal defense tactics that plaintiffs’ lawyers and their clients characterized as unnecessarily hardball and unsympathetic to those claiming abuse.
The diocese has replaced Edward Maher, a private lawyer it employed for more than a decade to defend against sex-abuse lawsuits, but who came under criticism from plaintiffs for his heavy-handed treatment.
Robert Ducatman of the Jones Day law firm is the new lead attorney, with Maher left to fill a backup role and finish the cases filed before the scandal broke.
Ducatman has brought a noticeably subdued tone to his court pleadings. So far, he has declined to answer sex-abuse claims by asserting that any psychological damages are the victims’ fault or that abusive clergy are not the responsibility of the diocese.
The church also has agreed to participate in out-of-court mediation hearings as an alternative to drawn-out and contentious courtroom battles.
“In cases that normally would be barred by the statute of limitations, mediation will allow the diocese to reach out to victims in a way that is less intrusive and more efficient to negotiate a balanced settlement,” said Bob Tayek, a diocesan spokesman.
Attorney Jeffrey Anderson of Minnesota, who is spearheading the mediation approach, said he is encouraged by the diocese’s approach. The first round of mediation sessions are scheduled for April 28.
“The diocese has a long history of stonewalling, minimizing and blaming,” Anderson said. “Litigation can take years to resolve. I’m hoping we can start to work together instead of against each other in the courtroom.”
Milano acknowledges that his lawsuit could damage the emerging detente.
“They will block and appeal forever,” Milano predicted. “They say they want to be open, but they have sicked their lawyers on this case who will fight to the end, and under no circumstances will they allow the documents to be made public.
“We feel it’s all fair game,” he said.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of five people from Northeast Ohio, all of whom accuse priests or diocesan employees of sexually abusing them as children during the past four decades. All of the incidents occurred with the knowledge of church officials who failed to report the crimes to police, the lawsuit claims.
Tayek declined to comment on the Milano lawsuit.
The lawsuits are only one aspect of the legal challenges the diocese faces. Next month, a retired priest and five former employees of the Catholic Charities’ Parmadale home for troubled youths are scheduled to stand trial on child sex-abuse charges. A sixth Parmadale employee pleaded guilty to attempted gross sexual imposition charges last week.
And a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court judge is expected to decide in June whether to release a roomful of investigative files compiled by the county prosecutor’s office that deal with more than 1,000 sex-abuse allegations against 496 suspects, including 145 priests.
Nor is Milano the only one demanding to know how church finances are being affected by the lawsuits as unrest grows among the 800,000 Catholics in the diocese.
Last month, the Community of St. Malachi Church in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood issued a statement calling on Bishop Anthony Pilla to provide a full financial accounting of how much the church has spent to defend itself against clergy sex-abuse lawsuits and to pay damage settlements to those who claim they were victims. The congregation has yet to receive a reply from the bishop.
Last Sunday, a planning meeting was held at Gesu parish in University Heights to establish a Cleveland chapter of Voice of the Faithful, the Boston-based splinter group of Catholics dissatisfied with the way the bishops have responded to the sex-abuse crisis in America. An official announcement is expected May 5.
What is happening in the Cleveland diocese is a microcosm of changes being experienced all over the country, said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
“It seems as if there has been at least some change in every aspect except the hierarchy’s response,” Clohessy said. “Victims are more motivated and resolved to fight back than ever, lawyers are more creative and persistent, judges are more open-minded, and what might be the biggest change of all, lay Catholics are determined to get answers and seek accountability.
“People are breaking ranks and pushing for change,” Clohessy said. “Rank-and-file Catholics are learning that you don’t have to blindly accept everything the bishop says or leave the church, that there’s a middle ground like Voice of the Faithful.”