KANSAS CITY, Mo. Six years after reaching a $10 million settlement with victims of sexual abuse, the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph has been ordered to pay $1.1 million for violating terms of the contract.
The order, issued by arbitrator Hollis Hanover, stems from a breach-of-contract lawsuit filed nearly three years ago alleging that the diocese and Bishop Robert Finn violated parts of the 2008 settlement, putting children in danger.
The lawsuit was filed in Jackson County Circuit Court by 44 of the 47 plaintiffs from the earlier case. The plaintiffs asked a judge to force the diocese to arbitration to ensure that it had complied with the reforms agreed upon in the settlement.
The issue that sparked their concerns was the diocese's failure to immediately report the Rev. Shawn Ratigan after finding hundreds of disturbing images of young girls on the priest's laptop computer in late 2010.
In his highly critical order, Hanover found that the diocese had breached five of the terms of the 2008 agreement. He noted that the plaintiffs could have sought to declare the contract void and collect what likely would have been "a far larger award."
"They have instead opted to seek damages for these noted breaches and to maintain the contract in force for the protection of children in the future," Hanover wrote. "I here honor their preference and join in their hope that I am dead wrong in my opinion that this Diocese as presently constituted will not mend its ways."
The diocese said Tuesday that because the matter was pending, it could not comment beyond what was submitted to the court in a motion it filed to vacate the order. In that motion, the diocese said that Hanover had exceeded his authority.
"There were no contractual terms under the express arbitration provisions of the 2008 Settlement Agreement which allowed the Arbitrator to award monetary damages beyond the $10M agreed to by the parties almost six years following the dismissals of Plaintiffs' lawsuits with prejudice and Plaintiffs' execution of general releases," the diocese wrote in a court filing.
The diocese also asked the court to modify the award because it contained "a number of factual errors, inaccuracies and unsupported inferences."
In his order, Hanover awarded damages of $650,000 to the plaintiffs, $450,000 to the attorneys and $5,820 for counseling of sex abuse victims that the diocese had not paid.
Some victims, however, said the breach lawsuit was never about money.
"We felt that they just wanted to get this situation over with, so they agreed to the contract in 2008 just to get it off the table and out of the media," said Robert Bates, one of the plaintiffs. "But since then, their behavior had been business as usual.
"We have children being molested in organized religion. This was to bring awareness and to keep it from ever happening again."
Rebecca Randles, an attorney for the plaintiffs, called the breach-of-contract case unprecedented.
"To bring a breach-of-contract claim involving a settlement in a priest sexual abuse case has never happened before," she said.
She also said: "This gives us one more weapon in our arsenal to keep children from being harmed."
The order was issued March 23 but was to remain confidential by law until the parties either moved to confirm or vacate it. The diocese had 90 days to decide whether to fight the ruling and did so on June 20, filing a motion to vacate the order.
The diocese's motion, along with the plaintiffs' motion to confirm the arbitrator's order, now will go before a Jackson County district judge.
The lawsuit grew out of a sexual abuse case filed years ago against 12 priests or former priests in the diocese. A $10 million settlement was reached in 2008 that included 19 nonmonetary commitments, such as establishing victim advocacy programs and immediately reporting any abuse or suspicion of abuse to law enforcement authorities.
Kansas City Diocese ordered to pay $1.1 million for violating contract with sex abuse victims
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