(CNSNews.com) - Trial lawyers Friday invoked federal racketeer laws normally used to prosecute organized crime to sue a Catholic bishop who admitted he sexually abused a teenager - and the dioceses in which he served - in a move that drew sharp criticism from religious and family groups.
Attorney Jeff Anderson, who specializes in clergy abuse cases, said his firm filed suit in federal court in Hannibal, Mo., on behalf of a man who allegedly was molested as a teenage seminarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary on Hannibal, and accused U.S. bishops of conspiracy to cover up the abuse.
The suit names Bishop Anthony O'Connell, a longtime rector at St. Thomas, along with the diocese where he worked: Jefferson City, Mo.; Knoxville, Tenn., and West Palm Beach, Fla.
O'Connell served at West Palm Beach until he resigned March 8 after admitting he sexually abused a teenager who was a seminarian at St. Thomas in the late 1970s.
The suit identified every bishop in the United States as unnamed conspirator, and cited them under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which is aimed primarily at organized crime but includes provisions for civil cases.
"All the bishops were engaging in concealment of criminal conduct to avoid prosecution, to obstruct justice, in particular to use the wires to commit fraudulent concealment of criminal wrongdoing by reason of the maintenance of secret files," Anderson told CNSNews.com.
Anderson, who has represented hundreds of people in similar cases, also cited the Catholic hierarchy for "engaging in secret bribery settlements with victims in a pattern that causes them to remain in silence."
"Bishop O'Connell had engaged in a secret settlement in 1995 with another victim and a number of bishops are involved in this conspiracy," he said.
William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, said victims had a right to sue priests who molested them. But their "righteous anger" didn't justify the use of RICO, he said.
"G. Robert Blakely, the Notre Dame professor who wrote the law, said it was aimed at organized crime," Donohue noted. "Notwithstanding its intent, RICO has become one of the most free-wielding clubs of our time. It has been used by the ACLU to punish pro-life activists who were simply invoking their First Amendment right to freedom of speech."
"This is the wrong remedy for an admittedly outrageous crime," he said.
Similar suits using racketeering laws against priests have failed, however. A judge dismissed racketeering charges against the U.S. Conference of Bishops in a case in New Jersey in 1995, and plaintiffs eventually dropped a similar claim against the Catholic Diocese of Dallas in 1998.
"What this is really about is how bad RICO is," said Michael Schwartz, a Catholic layman who in 1989 organized "Catholics for an Open Church," an ad hoc group, to highlight the problem of sexual abuse by clergy.
"It's a bad law and the fact that Mr. Anderson is able to resort to it in this instance is an indication of how bad the law is. It is far too vague and it goes infinitely beyond the intentions of its drafters and of the Congress which passed it," said Schwartz, currently vice president of government relations with Concerned Women for America.
Previous attempts to reform RICO have failed. In 1998, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) on the House Judiciary Committee agreed to work jointly on reforming RICO. However, impeachment got in the way and the work was never completed.
Schwartz predicted Anderson would use RICO to try to subpoena confidential files and gather more evidence. "And of course if he's allowed to use the RICO statute, then he'll use it on all of his future cases as well."
"Anderson is an aggressive trial lawyer, and trial lawyers have a tropism toward stashes of cash, and he assumes that every diocese has a large stash of cash," he said.
Schwartz said it was "an extreme stretch" to imagine that anyone in these dioceses was covering up anything they knew about O'Connell. But the church hierarchy also has clearly been negligent, he said.
"We know that priests are fallible men and that they're going to do all kinds of bad things and unfortunately, some of them are going to do criminal things. But what we have a right to expect is that the bishops who have a responsibility to protect the safety and integrity of the church would never cooperate with those criminals," Schwartz said.
"Instead there appears to have been a pattern, unfortunately, of bishops cooperating with criminals instead of doing what's right, and that is why we find ourselves in this position. They're asking what would Kenneth Lay do, not what would Jesus do," he said.
Invoking the RICO statute comes at a time when the public image of the Catholic Church has never been lower, observers said. A slew of sex abuse cases widely publicized in the media has depicted the church in the minds of many as a corrupt organization.
Pope John Paul II, responding to the escalating sexual abuse crisis in the church, said this week that guilty priests have succumbed to "the most grievous forms of evil" and brought "grave scandal" to the church.
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