While some move on, effects are 'never over'
Archdiocese, victims still adjusting long after settlement
By Peter Smith
July 13, 2008
When she broke her silence, Janice Winter freed herself from fear brought on by memories of the priest who abused her as a girl, and then told her to repent.
That, she said, meant more to her than sharing in a settlement five years ago with 242 other plaintiffs suing the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Louisville over sexual abuse by priests and others associated with the church.
"That was the benefit of the whole experience," she said. "It's not a secret anymore. I'm not saying the journey's over, but I've been able to take a giant step forward."
It has been five years this summer since the $25.7 million settlement that culminated the archdiocese's largest scandal in modern times.
But "if you're someone who's involved in it, it's never over," Winter said.
And the scandal still marks the Archdiocese of Louisville as well:
More than 15,000 Catholic volunteers and workers have received "safe-environment" training on preventing and detecting abuse.
While its finances have stabilized after paying the settlement, most of the staff and programming cuts it made in response remain.
New victims continue to approach the church, even though the experience is so traumatic for some that they become ill on the steps to the church offices.
"I don't regret at all the settlements that occurred," said Brian Reynolds, chancellor and chief administrative officer for the archdiocese. "Those men and women deserved a response and deserved compensation. I regret that it had to happen, not because it cost us money but it exposed how much pain and sin there was inside the church that needed to be addressed. That is terribly painful to see."
Victims in the settlement received $20,000 to $218,801, depending on the severity of the abuse. Some used it for counseling, others for school or financial needs, others for savings.
But more important, "they got to fight over something that happened to them; then they got to end the fight and go on," said Michael Turner, 50, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit against the archdiocese.
Some of the plaintiffs, he said, have gained sobriety after years of addiction, or have married after struggling to build relationships.
But not all of the former plaintiffs are doing well. One died three years ago, his death ruled a suicide.
And in an online support group that Winter participates in, she talks with "a lot of people still suffering as bad as they ever were."
The crisis continues to reverberate in other ways.
Turner and two former Kentucky men have a pending suit against the Vatican in federal court in Louisville, accusing it of organizing the American bishops' cover-up of sexual abuse.
Earlier this year, Kentucky lawmakers approved House Bill 211, which toughens penalties for sexual abusers and those who fail to report them.
"That was super empowering," said Shannon Age, one of several abuse survivors who pushed for the bill, as did the Catholic Conference of Kentucky. "To see it actually happen, that was just cool."
After simmering for two decades, the priest-abuse scandal erupted into a full-blown crisis in January 2002 in Boston with revelations of massive cover-ups of abusive priests. Eventually, 4 percent of priests serving nationwide in the previous half-century would be accused of sexual abuse.
It was around 2002 that Turner's memories of being abused by former priest Louis Miller in the 1970s were aggravated when Turner went to an abuse-prevention class while preparing for an adoption.
He was outraged to see a Courier-Journal article that April showing that Miller had just retired, years after the archdiocese learned of his abusive behavior.
That same month, Turner became the first of more than 250 people to sue the archdiocese. In all, more than three dozen priests and other church workers, living and dead, were accused of abusing children as far back as the late 1940s.
The suits ultimately yielded evidence of repeated instances in which known abusers were kept in the ministry by Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly, who retired last year, and his predecessors.
A handful of plaintiffs reached separate settlements, or their cases were dismissed or withdrawn.
Then in June 2003, 243 plaintiffs reached the main settlement, with the judge's final approval coming in August.
At the time, it was one of the largest settlements in the United States, although it was later dwarfed by payouts elsewhere, including the Diocese of Covington's $84 million class-action settlement.
Nine Louisville priests were eventually removed after U.S. bishops agreed in 2002 to ban any priest from ministry for sexually abusing a child.
In at least four other cases, the Archdiocese of Louisville returned priests to ministry after concluding it could not substantiate allegations made against them in lawsuits or statements to police.
For Age, going public about her abuse by the late Franciscan priest Kevin Cole was a crucial step in her healing -- but not an easy one.
"I had to replace a lot of friends, because once I sued their church, many of them became not my friends anymore," said Age, 48.
Yet she remains a committed Catholic and counts several priests, and Reynolds, among her friends.
"A bad priest got a hold of me, but that doesn't mean they are all bad," she said.
She has begun going on mission trips to Nicaragua and Jamaica to provide food and housing to the needy.
"That's where I find my peace," she said. "Four years ago, I finally made a vow I would never consider suicide an option anymore."
Some abuse survivors have found their passion as watchdogs of the church and advocates for reforms.
"It's worth it when I look at the laws being changed, helping open people's eyes more and more," Jeff Koenig said.
John Scott said bringing both civil and criminal claims against retired priest Edwin Scherzer, now confined to house arrest for his conviction on abuse charges, "cleared up a lot of thoughts that I had." Scott had long blamed himself after being molested by Scherzer in the 1950s.
Others remain alienated from the church.
Winter said that when the Archdiocese of Louisville had its bicentennial festivities late last month, some abuse survivors felt their role in a central chapter of the church's history was overlooked.
"It just seems like we're not past it, so to celebrate it was a little bit hurtful," said Winter, 49.
Scott occasionally attends Protestant churches but has not returned to the Catholic Church. He was not impressed with Pope Benedict XVI's recent comments in America deploring sexual abuse, saying he didn't speak enough about bishops who protected abusers.
"He was sorry," Scott said. "I guess I'm supposed to accept that and go on. I have, but in the back of my mind, it's not right."
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz said he found good abuse-prevention programs in place when he arrived last year at the helm of the Archdiocese of Louisville.
"There has been a strong commitment to a safe environment," he said. "This is something that seems to permeate not just the archdiocese but parishes and schools and other institutions."
He has met with some victims and seeks "not to try to find some quick solution to their pain, but to seek always with them a wholeness and healthiness."
Reynolds said the archdiocese, which paid out most of its undesignated savings that had supplemented its operating income, is recovering financially. It had begun to rebuild its savings, although financial-market woes have eroded some of those gains.
The archdiocese has maintained many services in some form but has replaced only two of the 50 jobs it cut, with no plans for restoring the rest. It also has cut local religious television programming and grants for struggling parishes and community groups.
The archdiocese had to raise assessments on parish revenue after the settlement, but less than expected.
But as for the archdiocese's ultimate currency, "Trust has to be rebuilt one relationship at a time, and that's an ongoing process," Reynolds said.
Among the majority of priests who were never accused, many were shocked to learn the extent of the abuse, said the Rev. Bill Bowling, pastor of Annunciation Church in Shelbyville.
He and other priests began meeting for monthly "pilgrim days of prayer." They went to churches where the abuse happened, praying for both victims and accused priests. He also met with two of the victims.
"That was a healing thing for them, and a good thing for me to do," he said.
As director of vocations, Bowling saw the field of candidates for the priesthood almost disappear during the crisis.
But last year alone, six men entered seminaries.
"This group of men, who knew very well what had gone on in our archdiocese and nationwide, showed lots of courage to say this is probably the best time ever to become a priest, because they realized we were doing something new," Bowling said.
Bowling said he eliminated one candidate based on the church's psychological tests and other screening methods, which flag risk factors such as grown men whose only friends are minors.
And interaction between priests and children has changed in the wake of the scandal, Bowling said.
"Before the scandal, I wouldn't have given a second thought about being with kids," said Bowling, who has 21 nieces and nephews. Today, "I would just never consider being completely alone with a child."
It was awkward, he acknowledged, at the height of the crisis, when children would run up to a priest to give a hug. But "it didn't take me long to get angry about being uncomfortable with the natural affectionate gesture of a child," Bowling said.
"The parents are right there, I'm right there, and it's natural that children want to give and receive affection."
Tom Robbins has become the face of the Archdiocese of Louisville for people who continue to come forward and report their abuse.
"The walk up those stairs … is a heroic walk," said Robbins, a therapist and the archdiocese's victim assistance coordinator. "I've had people actually throw up walking up those stairs, because they are coming to the very place they feel failed them so many years ago."
Sometimes they go to the place -- a church, a school, a former home -- where the priest abused the victim.
"You can see them go into their memory," he said. "They're in that place, and I'm there with them. I don't flinch.' "
Victims can meet with Archbishop Kurtz if they choose, and the archdiocese helps pay for counseling.
Counseling "doesn't mean you get cured from it, but you take this brokenness and you make a good life," Robbins said.
Reporter Peter Smith can be reached at (502) 582-4469.