- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 30, 2009

Last week, I got to see “Doubt,” the 2008 psychological drama starring Meryl Streep about a nun who suspects that the parish priest over

seeing her parochial school is sexually abusing male students. The genius of the movie is that the nun has no proof, but her instincts and the viewers are left to decide whether the priest (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) was really up to something.

Most of the people watching the movie with me thought the priest was innocent. I argued with them. Didn’t they notice, I asked, the priest’s spiritual poverty, the sneaky way he did everything, his lame excuses for being alone with little boys?

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No, they did not. I realized once again that while reporters have reviewed tons of these cases and know the tell-tale signs of abuse in their sleep, the general public remains clueless.

And so I am revisiting an abuse case I covered five years ago that is back in court. In 2003, Bill Moersen sued the Archdiocese of Washington over sexual abuse he said occurred 40 years earlier - at the hands of the lay choir director at St. Catherine Laboure Church in Wheaton. Mr. Moersen returned years later to play the organ at the church but was fired in 2002 after he told a priest, the Rev. Robert G. Amey, what had happened to him.

I met Mr. Moersen in May 2004 at Prince George’s County Circuit Court, where the case was before Judge Steven I. Platt. I spent two days rummaging through documents and talking with Mr. Moersen. The plaintiff said he told four priests in the confessional he was being abused but none of them ever fired the choirmaster. All this occurred circa 1958-1964, the period when abuse incidents were accelerating in the church.

But unlike in “Doubt,” also set in 1964, there was no watchdog nun to rescue the teenager.

Judge Platt ended up dismissing the lawsuit “with some reluctance,” he said, because Mr. Moersen was a church employee and not entitled to certain rights under Maryland labor laws.

A Maryland appeals court overturned Judge Platt’s ruling, saying the position of organist was a secular one because he was not promoting Catholicism. But three dissenting judges wrote that music - and the musician - was vital to the pastoral and spiritual mission of the church.

The archdiocese - which recently refused comment on the case - appealed that ruling, but lost. The case is back in Prince George’s County courthouse, set for May 18. Mr. Moersen told me Judge Platt is coming out of retirement to rehear it.

“An organist in Maryland can now sue the archdiocese or any other church as a result of my appeals,” he told me. “Formerly, they were considered members of the clergy, so they had no legal recourse.”

The crux of the matter is whether playing music is considered “ministerial.” If it were, a church could claim the First Amendment in saying the government cannot interfere in a church’s hiring decisions.

Mr. Moersen has written a book on his travails, “Organ Lessons,” and is seeking a new lawyer to help him get a settlement.

“I’m looking for someone who wants to fight childhood molestation,” he said. “I think I can win.”

Come to think of it, Miss Streep grew up Catholic in New Jersey and played a southern civil rights lawyer in the 1979 film “The Seduction of Joe Tynan.” Maybe she could pitch in?

• Julia Duin’s column Stairway to Heaven appears on Thursdays and Sundays. Contact her at [email protected]

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