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Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests - Tennessee




Lawyers say Church failed duty



June 16, 2001

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Nashville should be held liable for "failing to investigate" once church officials learned in 1986 that then-priest Edward McKeown had molested a boy years earlier, lawyers for two boys who say McKeown molested them in the 1990s said yesterday.

 But attorney Tom Mink, representing the diocese, said former Nashville Bishop James Niedergeses reacted properly -- sending McKeown to treatment and then assigning him to a job that kept him away from children -- when he learned in 1986 that McKeown had molested a boy 14 years earlier, while he was a teacher at Father Ryan High School.

 Mink also pointed to the former bishop's forcing McKeown to leave the priesthood in 1989, after it became obvious that there was not a suitable long-term job for him in the Diocese of Nashville.

 The lawyer said the church should not be held liable for McKeown's sexual involvement with the two boys when he was no longer a priest.

 At a hearing before Davidson County Circuit Judge Walter Kurtz yesterday, lawyers for the diocese asked for a dismissal of lawsuits filed by the boys' families against the diocese McKeown, who is now serving a 25-year prison sentence and Frank Richards, another former priest and admitted pedophile who knew that McKeown had molested at least one boy in the 1970s.

 John Day, the lawyer for the two boys, said his clients, who are now 18 and 19, could not have been molested by McKeown "if the diocese had asked him just one time, 'Eddie, was there anyone else?' "

 But, Day told Kurtz, "They didn't want to look under the rock. ... They didn't want to know."

 Day noted that McKeown "spilled his guts to the police" about almost 30 years of sexual abuse of adolescent boys, much of that while he was a priest, after one of Day's clients accused him of rape early in 1999.

 The attorney pointed to a letter from a Maryland treatment center where former bishop Niedergeses sent McKeown in 1986. Day said the Diocese of Nashville made no effort to investigate McKeown's admission at the treatment center that he had had sex with about 30 boys over the previous 14 years and that he sometimes used alcohol "to facilitate sexual interaction."

 Mink said, contrary to Day's argument, that McKeown would not necessarily have been charged with a crime if church officials had probed more thoroughly into his past in 1986.

 Mink said Day is trying to make "inference upon inference upon inference" in order to blame the church for McKeown's sexual misconduct in the 1990s.

 "If they (church officials) can be criticized for anything, it may an oversight," Mink said, but that does not amount to "outrageous conduct," which is the legal theory that Day is pursuing in his lawsuits.

 Day acknowledged yesterday, under questioning from Kurtz, that he cannot find a legal precedent for lawsuits like the ones he is pursuing against the Diocese of Nashville.

 But he said, "The fact that it hasn't happened before doesn't mean that it shouldn't happen now. The fact that they didn't care who they hurt (by sending McKeown into the community without warning) shouldn't be an excuse for avoiding liability."

 Day buttressed his argument with excerpts from videotaped depositions of Niedergeses and other church officials, and with a copy of a letter that an East Tennessee boy sent his mother about his repeated sexual encounters with McKeown when he was a teen-ager in the 1980s.

 "I would be there in bed with him, drunk, and I was so scared," the boy said in the letter, which Day said Niedergeses received in 1988 but never attempted to investigate.

 Day also cited minutes from a meeting of diocese officials in December 1988, during which they talked about television coverage of priest sex scandals in other parts of the country and Niedergeses said, "They have crucified some bishops."

 Church records show McKeown threatened "a public airing" if he were not paid $50,000 when he was told to leave the priesthood early in 1989, Day said. Church officials have said that they made $51,000 in "charitable" payments over the next five years to help McKeown get established "in the workaday world.

 "A jury could conclude that they were buying silence," Day said.

 Each of Day's clients is seeking $8 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages.

 Kurtz took under advisement motions by the diocese and Richards to dismiss the two lawsuits, which are set for trial in July and August.

 Kirk Loggins covers courts for The Tennessean.