Historic $119.6 Million Settlement To Priest’s Victims (September 1997)

In the largest judgment ever in a clergy sexual molestation case in the country, Texas jurors awarded 11 plaintiffs $119.6 million on July 24 in a civil case after unanimously finding the Dallas Catholic Diocese committed “gross negligence” and concealed information in its handling of priest Rudolph “Rudy” Kos.

The 11-week trial concluded in favor of the plaintiffs, holding the diocese responsible for most of the injuries. Among the jury’s findings were that the diocese committed fraud and engaged in conspiracy to cover up the sexual abuse. Jurors also found that the diocese’s negligence and the sexual abuse by Kos were “proximate cause” of the suicide of Jay Lemberger, a victim who shot himself at age 21.

Jurors were permitted by state District Judge Anne Ashby to read a statement admonishing the diocese in open court after the verdict.

The courtroom erupted in a 30-second standing ovation at the conclusion of the statement, which urged the diocese to instill stricter rules to protect children from sexual abuse, adding, “Please admit your guilt and allow these young men to get on with their lives.”

At the beginning of the trial in May, Judge Ashby ruled Kos liable for the abuse because he had never responded to the lawsuits. He still faces a criminal trial on related charges.

Kos, 52, has been living under an assumed name and working as a paralegal in San Diego, California, since his removal from the church in 1992. He reportedly sexually abused as many as 50 boys while serving at All Saints Catholic church in North Dallas, St. Luke’s church in Irving and St. John’s church in Ennis from 1981-92. According to testimony, most of the abuse began with foot massages and progressed to oral and anal intercourse during overnight stays in Kos’ rectory room.

One of the victims testified that the priest abused him for four years, beginning at age 10. Another victim told jurors that he was sexually abused by Kos about 350 times. Several love letters Kos wrote to the boy after he and his family moved out of state were introduced as evidence.

Although Kos committed the crimes, the diocese was the target of the trial due to its lack of action in the face of a “mountain of evidence” that indicated Kos was abusing boys, said plaintiff lawyers Windle Turley and Sylvia Demarest.

They charged that a reasonable investigation by church officials would have revealed that Kos, prior to his admission to the seminary, had served a year in a juvenile detention center for molesting a neighbor. Further, his ex-wife told a marriage tribunal official in a written deposition that Kos was sexually interested in boys. And finally, the plaintiffs pointed to a series of warnings and complaints from other priests about Kos’ activities with boys throughout the late 1980s.

Boys began spending the night in Kos’ rectory room in 1978, when he was given his first assistant pastor placement. By 1981, a complaint was filed with church officials that Kos was sexually aggressive toward other seminarians.

Another priest filed repeated complaints in 1985 and 1986 to top church officials about boys spending the night with Kos, and parishioners and another pastor brought later complaints.

Despite these warnings, Kos was made a pastor in 1988. A Dallas social worker told Msgr. Rehkemper that Kos was a “textbook pedophile” in 1992.

Diocesan officials have stated that they could not have mounted a full-scale investigation without a direct complaint from a victim.

Kos ultimately was free to do as he pleased until 1992 when the first youth complained to Catholic officials. Kos was suspended from his priestly duties and sent to Jemez Springs, a church-run treatment “resort” for pedophiles in New Mexico.

The first lawsuit against Kos and the diocese was filed in 1993. The priest was indicted in 1996 on one criminal count of indecency with a child and on a count of sexual contact with a child. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

As Kos’ reported abuse came to light more victims came forward with similar claims of abuse. Ten young men and the family of Jay Lemberger joined forces and filed the civil suit which sought $146.5 million in actual and punitive damages.

In a news conference after the verdict, plaintiff Shawn Johnson, 29, of Plano, said, “I hope now the victims around the world will obtain the courage and strength to come forward. We know the shame, guilt and embarrassment. But know this as well: You are not alone.”

Diocese attorney Randal Mathis has vowed to appeal the verdict to the U.S. Supreme Court. On a recent edition of CNN’s Larry King Live, Mathis stated the diocese would appeal the verdict as well as the amount of the verdict largely because the trial was against the church and not Kos.

If appeals proceed as promised and the judgment is upheld, interest could push the total to about $200 million over the next three to five years, according to newspaper reports. The award already stands to earn interest at 10 percent a year for the four years the first lawsuit was filed.

The diocese has enough liability insurance to cover the award, said plaintiffs’ attorney Demarest. But it is not clear how much good the policies will provide since insurers have been refusing to pay for clergy abuse, arguing that church leaders knew which priests posed a risk to children, yet failed to remove them.

Sources: Dallas Morning News 7/13-25/97; New York Times 7/18/97; Los Angeles Times 7/25/97; Reuters 8/8/97; Associated Press 8/9/97; San Antonio Express News 8/9/97; Corpus Christi Caller-Times 8/9/97; Larry King Live 8/11/97

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