Debt Comes to the Archbishop

A sad chapter in the church's history is far from over

When the Archdiocese of St. Louis agreed in April to pay more than $1.5 million to an area family whose son was sexually abused by a Catholic priest, it seemed to be the end of a sad chapter in the church's history.

"No amount of money will restore this child's innocence," David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), was quoted as saying in an April 21 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "We certainly hope that this will provide for him and his family some degree of closure."

The settlement was the largest of its kind ever paid out by the Archdiocese of St. Louis. But the case is far from over. Ten days after reaching the massive settlement, the archdiocese fired off a heated letter to its former insurer, Evanston Insurance Company, demanding reimbursement for the payout. The insurance company refused the demand, and last week the Illinois-based insurer filed a pre-emptive lawsuit against the archdiocese.

The suit alleges the archdiocese concealed an impending sexual-abuse scandal from the insurer while negotiating a 30-day extension of its policy in July 2002. The sexual-abuse case at issue concerns Gary Wolken, who served as an archdiocesan priest from September 1993 until his removal in March 2002. Wolken, who ministered at Our Lady of Sorrows in south St. Louis, pled guilty to two counts of statutory sodomy and six counts of child molestation in December 2002. The former priest admitted to sexually abusing a boy -- the son of a family friend -- while babysitting between August 1997 and July 2000.

Neither the insurance company nor its attorneys would comment for this story. But according to a complaint filed in the United States District Court-Eastern District of Missouri, the archdiocese "first learned of the abuse" in March 2002. Nonetheless, according to the complaint, the archdiocese hid from the insurer the claim of sexual abuse when requesting a 30-day extension of its coverage from July 1, 2002, to August 1, 2002. In fact, attorneys for Evanston Insurance Company contend, the archdiocese did not notify the insurer of the sexual-abuse claim until May 13, 2003, a full eight months after the policy ended.

When asked about the suit, Tony Huenneke, a spokesman for the archdiocese, responded with the following written statement, which reads in part: "The archdiocese's position is that Evanston [Insurance Company] has breached its policy of insurance by refusing to pay this claim and that the archdiocese is entitled to reimbursement by Evanston. Unfortunately, Evanston is forcing this matter into litigation and, because the matter is in litigation, the archdiocese will make no further comment at this time."

The suit echoes problems that have plagued the Archdiocese of Boston, which has recently engaged in similar litigation with its insurers, Kemper and Travelers. The plaintiff's lawyers in St. Louis argue that the archdiocese failed to inform the insurer of ongoing sexual-abuse problems concerning Wolken, who is now serving a fifteen-year sentence at the South Central Correctional Center in Licking, Missouri.

Plaintiffs' attorney Robert Ritter cited evidence in his clients' sexual-abuse claim against Wolken that, as early as 1994, employees at an archdiocese school noticed the former priest having inappropriate physical contact with children. Wolken was subsequently ordered to undergo therapy, where he admitted being sexually attracted to children. While still undergoing therapy, Wolken began sexually abusing the boy in 1997. Nonetheless, the Evanston Insurance Company's lawyers argue, the archdiocese concealed its knowledge of Wolken's pedophilia while negotiating its policy in the summer of 2002.

The current case also hinges on a policy technicality: Under the terms of the policy, the insurance company's attorneys argue, the archdiocese was required to notify the insurer within 30 days of any sexual-abuse claim. The suit argues that the archdiocese failed to inform the insurer of the abuse, thus freeing the company from any duty to reimburse the Church.

So far the archdiocese has demanded the insurance company cough up roughly $1.5 million. The lawsuit seeks to clear the insurance company of any obligation to reimburse the archdiocese. In the words of one of the company's executives who refused to be named for this story, "There's only one thing I can tell you: We don't think the claim was reported to us appropriately."

 
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