- The Washington Times - Friday, August 30, 2002

Some Roman Catholic priests who say they have been falsely accused of molesting children have turned to civil courts for relief, filing defamation lawsuits against their accusers.
Advocates for abuse survivors say these clergymen are trying to intimidate victims. But the priests argue a lawsuit is one of the few ways they can clear their names in a climate of public anger over offenders who remained in parish work.
"Child sexual abuse that's an unconscionable crime and sin. The defamation of character of a good priest, that's a crime as well," said the Rev. Robert Silva, head of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, which claims about half of the 46,000 U.S. priests as members.
Priests in the dioceses of Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Okla., St. Louis and Orange County, Calif., have recently filed defamation lawsuits. A sixth priest has filed a defamation claim under church law in the Diocese of Trenton, N.J.
The share of clergymen taking this approach is small compared to the number who resigned or were suspended this year over accusations of sex abuse.
At least 300 priests have been taken off duty since the crisis erupted in January with the case of a former Boston priest who was shuffled between parishes despite evidence he molested children. A few of the clergymen have appealed to the Vatican to be reinstated, but many more have agreed to step down.
America's bishops pledged in June to do more to support victims and move aggressively against guilty priests by permanently removing offenders from any church work, and in some cases, from the priesthood altogether.
Victims said the defamation claims violated the spirit of that plan. Priests in Tulsa and St. Louis sued accusers who had not even filed suit, but had made their accusations privately to the diocese or civil authorities.
However Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, noted the sex-abuse policy included a section that reads, "when the accusation has proved to be unfounded, every step possible will be taken to restore the good name of the priest." Diocesan officials said that, except for the California case, the priests who sued in civil court faced no additional claims of molestation.
In each of the civil lawsuits against purported victims, the diocesan spokesmen said the clergymen acted independently, without financial or other support from their bishops. Still, some bishops have indirectly backed the priests, by publicly questioning the accusations against them.
Countersuing in abuse claims is not new. After clerical sex abuse first drew public attention in the 1980s, some dioceses sued the parents of purported victims, accusing them of negligence for failing to protect their children. These priests are using a different tactic by claiming defamation.
In the St. Louis Archdiocese, the Rev. Alex Anderson filed such a defamation claim against Arthur Andreas, who said the priest abused him about 15 years ago at a home for boys. Mr. Andreas reported the accusations to the church and to civil authorities, but did not sue. The priest, however, made the accusations public in April by denying them from his pulpit.
Prosecutors soon after decided not to press charges, saying the statute of limitations was about to lapse, and the archdiocese issued a statement of support for the clergyman. Father Anderson is seeking an apology from his accuser and $25,000 in damages. The priest's attorney, Katherine L. Butler, said he would drop the suit if Mr. Andreas dropped his abuse claim.

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