Monday, May 31, 2010

Sex abuse victims say church is still tenaciously fighting claims

John Caruso thought his trauma within the Roman Catholic Church began and ended with Rev. James Kneale.

The St. Catharines-area priest was convicted of sexually abusing the former altar boy 11 years ago.

Caruso and his Fort Erie family sued Kneale, the Diocese of St. Catharines and former bishops for $8.6 million, claiming, among other things, that church officials knew or should have known the priest was a sexual predator.

The response was an unexpected legal thunderbolt: Kneale and the diocese countersued Caruso’s mother and father.

They claimed the parents were negligent in failing to get counselling and medical help for their teenaged son and that Caruso’s father regularly beat him, compounding his psychological troubles.

The legal hardball shattered the once-devout family.

Caruso’s parents had to hire their own lawyers. Family relationships were strained. Caruso attempted suicide several times. And it got worse: His mother Claire died March 22, 2009, while the legal war still raged — a full decade after Kneale’s conviction, and 25 years after the priest performed a sex act on him during a rectory sleepover.

“She took it to her grave thinking she was part of the problem,’’ said a sobbing 40-year-old Caruso, the only time he broke down and cried during a phone interview from his Chatham home.

“She kept saying, ‘I feel like it’s my fault John.’ I kept telling her ‘No, it’s not your fault.’ ”

St. Catharines lawyer Peter A. Mahoney, who represented the diocese, declined to comment on the legal tactics behind the counter-claim because “my sense is that the (news)papers don’t want to be accurate (and) they misquote (people).”

Phone and email messages left with Wayne Kirkpatrick, the monsignor currently running the diocese, were not returned.

Four months after burying his mother, Caruso accepted the diocese’s undisclosed financial offer.

“Why do you think I took the settlement?’’ he asked, angrily. “I couldn’t take it anymore. I was going to kill myself.”

The pressure Caruso experienced in battling the Catholic Church is not unusual, say those suing Catholic dioceses, priests and nuns over abuse.

Despite the church’s pledge to handle victims with compassion — a position repeated this month by Pope Benedict — it too often plays a game of courtroom chicken with stall tactics, hostile discovery sessions and intrusive psychological probes that unnerve vulnerable clients, say victims and their lawyers.

“They don’t want to pay out the money,’’ said Jack Lavers, a Newfoundland lawyer who has worked both sides of the liturgical legal landscape. “There are (cases) that do start and never seem to finish.”

Seemingly relentless legal campaigns — especially against victims like Caruso, whose abuser had been convicted — appear to clash with church reforms adopted two decades ago after the Mount Cashel orphanage sex scandal.

Pastoral outreach for victims of clergy abuse was among the recommendations in the 1992 “From Pain to Hope” report commissioned by the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops.

Counselling and empathy for the abused were again recommended in a 2007 CCCB task force.

The CCCB declined to provide a spokesperson to address allegations of legal bullying and stalling, and instead suggested contacting church representatives from Cornwall or London.

London’s vicar general, Rev. John Sharp, has worked on nearly 60 lawsuits involving victims of the late Charles Sylvestre, convicted of abusing 47 women as minors. Nearly 40 more women came forward after the priest was jailed in 2006.

Sharp said each victim’s circumstances are unique and claims of harsh treatment “may very well be” in some cases. But London-area victims are “immediately” offered counselling with a professional of their choice as soon as they report abuse.

“In our diocese we are committed to keep these things moving as quickly and fully as we possibly can,” said Sharp, who estimates he still has 20 active Sylvestre cases.

“I would do it every day to keep at it but there’s a whole process that’s involved in (litigation): lawyers’ schedules, availability, all that stuff. I can appreciate (cases) taking so long; I wish this had been over a long time ago.”

Lavers said courtroom reality is that plaintiffs often get worn down and agree to accept smaller sums or drop their cases completely.

The St. John’s lawyer, who defended the Mount Cashel superintendent in criminal and civil court, now represents victims. He’s settled about 30 cases against the Catholic Church, taking “10 and 12 years to bring some of them to closure.”

Cases drag on while medical, education and work history information is gathered and studied for discovery and mediation sessions. Insurance company lawyers — insurers pay plaintiffs if the church has coverage — add another layer of scrutiny.

One London-area woman, who asked not to be named, said the defence cancelled its own psychological exam of her in Toronto 36 hours before it was scheduled — and after she’d booked that day off work and hired babysitters for her children. The new date was several months later.

Sometimes empathy is evident. Chatham’s Lou Ann Soontiens, for instance, recalls professional, courteous attention from Sharp’s London team.

Soontiens was a Sylvestre victim. She’d been assaulted for years and had an abortion arranged by him — a procedure that was botched — after the priest raped her as a teenager.

Soontiens sued the London archdiocese and settled for a reported $1.75 million, the largest known church award for a sexual assault victim in Canadian history.

“I had other girls tell me they went through hell but I can’t say that,” said the 54-year-old, who wrote about her abuse in Breach of Faith, Breach of Trust which was launched earlier this month in Chatham. She also had kind words for “compassionate” Bishop Ronald Fabbro, who was supportive throughout the three-year litigation.

Similar support was not there for Judi Evans.

The 65-year-old native of St. John’s, Nfld., is among a group claiming physical and emotional abuse at the Belvedere Orphanage — a female counterpart of Mount Cashel. More than 30 women are suing the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy and the province of Newfoundland. Her case is now 13 years old and has only a faint pulse.

Evans, a singer who entertained Toronto crowds for three decades at nightspots like the El Mocambo, the Silver Dollar and the Royal York, said the legal limbo frustrates her and her five sisters who were all “tortured” by the nuns in the 1940s and ’50s.

Evans said she was beaten with belts and fists, locked in a dark tower without food for hours and, as a kindergarten student, was placed in a bathtub of scalding water and scrubbed with a hard brush between her legs when she peed her pants. One of Evans’ sisters had two fingers sliced off while operating a bread machine in an unsupervised kitchen while another sister needed stitches after a nun hit her in the head with the schoolyard bell.

“I had a business, I had a successful career,” said Evans, whose singing days ended when she began addressing childhood memories in the mid-1990s and had a breakdown.

She’s also battled alcoholism (she’s sober now), depression and now requires regular psychotherapy.

“(Other orphans) ended up drug addicts, prostitutes, suicides or emotionally abused . . . or drunks, because I was there too,” said Evans, who lives in Toronto with her husband of 34 years, Joe. She asked that her married surname not be used.

“I would give the world to see this come to closure of some sort.”

But the Belvedere case has little traction.

Nuns have died, memories are fading, time limits on physical assault allegations ran out decades ago, no criminal charges were laid and the potential financial compensation may not, ultimately, be worth the trauma of putting the women on the stand, says Evans’ lawyer, Richard Rogers.

That’s one of the reasons he has not formally filed a statement of claim. Rogers, who represented Mount Cashel and residential school victims, hopes to negotiate a group settlement for clients, most of whom needed extensive therapy as adults.

Some women claimed they were also sexually assaulted by nuns.

Thomas O’Reilly represents the Sisters of Mercy and described Evans’ case as being in a state of “inertia,” citing the lack of a statement of claim.

The province responded to the Star in an email, stating “liability is being contested and the claims are being actively defended.”

Lavers understands why Rogers wants to avoid a trial. He witnessed two Belvedere women crack during discovery sessions a decade ago.

“The ladies would have breakdowns (and) and would end up in the (psychiatric) hospital,” said Lavers, who then represented two Sisters of Mercy nuns who were being sued as individuals.

“My heart went out to a couple of them because it appeared to be a re-victimization of the whole thing. I think it became so difficult for them to face it, they just walked away. It just wasn’t worth it to them.”

Cecilia McLauchlin felt she was in a game of “survivor” when she sued the London archdiocese in 2007. She was abused by Sylvestre when she was about 4 until she was 6.

The 32-year-old settled with the church last September — five days before her trial was to start. Prior to that, she had a 9-hour psychological assessment in Toronto for the defence that she said “haunted” her and caused regression in her therapy. The defence is entitled to conduct independent medical assessments.

McLauchlin was alone with a male doctor who asked graphic, explicit questions about her abuse and her adult sex life. She was also asked to describe the priest’s penis — even though Sylvestre was dead. McLauchlin said she was given a written assignment with hundreds of questions, such as: Do you ever feel like jumping off a bridge?

Another Sylvestre victim — the woman who’d had her psychiatric exam in Toronto cancelled — is in her fifth year of litigation. The woman said she’s seen the priest’s victims crumble after years on “an emotional roller coaster.”

“They couldn’t eat, sleep, work, they couldn’t carry on in their personal relationships,” said the woman, whose trial date is in 2011.

“There was so much anger in their lives and frustration. They just said ‘I want this done. I don’t care if I get $10, I just want this done.’ ”

Swifter resolutions would be more humane for victims, said Connie Coatsworth, a counsellor who has treated between 15 and 20 adults sexually assaulted as children by Catholic clergy.

“The longer (litigation) goes on, the harder it is for (patients) to heal,’’ said the Chatham therapist, who sees clients suffer under stresses related to lawsuits. “If (the church) truly wants healing for them, they need to expedite this process.”

Caruso called the church’s conduct hypocritical because it boasts of pastoral outreach to victims yet treated him “like sh--.”

“Their only concern is to piss you off and get you going and do everything they possibly can to deter you from suing them.”

Caruso said it would be more helpful to victims — and probably cheaper — for the church to provide counselling to ease their pain instead angering them into court action.

“I did not want to sue,” he said. “I didn’t want to be the poster child for this kind of bull.”