Two days later, Monsignor Dwyer apparently wrote to the victim about "the problem of Father Cooper" and pleaded, "Please do not worry about getting Father Cooper in trouble. My job is to do everything possible to help him."

Obtaining letters such as these is crucial for any plaintiff in Missouri who hopes to prove that the archdiocese knowingly failed to supervise its clergy, says Rebecca Randles, Doe's lawyer. The reason, she explains, is that under state law, a victim in such a suit must possess a document showing that Church officials were aware that the priest had a history of sexually abusing kids — a high burden of proof, according to local and national attorneys.

"Lack of [such evidence] is one of the things that determines whether we tell our clients to settle or not," Randles says.

Vlad Alvarez
Vlad Alvarez

On June 6, 2007, John Doe, Church officials and legal counsel for both sides came to the table to hash out a settlement. Neither side can reveal what happened that day. But their attempts at reaching a compromise failed. Doe decided to fight on in court.

St. Louis is not another Boston, says Phil Hengen, the local archdiocese's self-described "point person" on the clerical sex-abuse issue. "Whatever happened there didn't happen here," he says. "There's a notion that there's this widespread abuse, and we're circling wagons and covering it up. And that's just not happening."

Hengen, director of the Church's Office of Child and Youth Protection, says most of the cases landing on his desk date back several decades, and he can explain why.

"Back then, the prevailing sense among physicians was that you could take the abuser to treatment, he'd be fixed, and he wouldn't do it again."

"We're smarter now," posits Hengen, himself a deacon and layman who has practiced therapy for 40 years. "We just know more. That's the nature of psychology."

For the sake of prevention, anybody in the archdiocese with regular access to kids — from a bishop down to a soccer volunteer — now submits to regular background checks. Youngsters are being taught what the red flags are. Adults learn what to watch for in other adults. Any sex-abuse complaint voiced by a minor is swiftly relayed to civil authorities, no exceptions.

If an adult comes forward with stories of abuse dating back many years, Hengen launches an internal investigation. An accused priest who is still alive is temporarily removed from duty, and the victim is encouraged to make a report to the police.

Meanwhile, Hengen presents his findings to the archdiocese's review board, which currently consists of clergymen, social workers, psychologists, teachers, even a former police commander. As a rule, the majority must be laymen. Many are parents and grandparents.

Should the board find the allegation credible, and the archbishop agrees, the archdiocese goes public with the finding and offers financial assistance to the victim.

"In the St. Louis area, we often get allegations not directly from victims, but from their lawyers," Hengen observes. "That changes the whole process."

Bernie Huger, legal counsel to the archdiocese since the '90s, estimates that this accounts for about half the cases.

Most of the litigation gets settled, Huger says. According to Church records, the archdiocese settled 81 cases from 2002 to 2010, paying $7.1 million to victims.

Huger describes the mediation process by way of hypothetical example: Say a victim requests $5 million. Based on a detailed consultation with therapists, the Church might consider $75,000 more appropriate to cover all the therapy and medication the victim would ever need, plus some money for attorneys' fees and a little extra in case more therapy is needed.

"Our interest is in providing healing, not for providing monies for pain and suffering," says Hengen. But he resists the charge that the archdiocese leaves victims out in the cold. Many get help, he says, without lawyers.

Furthermore, Hengen points out, when the Missouri Supreme Court overturned a civil ruling against Father Thomas Graham in 2005, the archdiocese sought out the victim and helped pay for his therapy.

"Now, if we're so interested in getting off on technicalities, cutting corners and getting by as cheaply as we can, why would we do that?" Hengen asks. "That doesn't make any sense."

Huger, who is employed by the Greensfelder law firm, says he's noticed a slight uptick in false allegations in the last few years, owing to media coverage and "opportunists" who want to take advantage of the situation.

He says about 90 to 95 percent of the sex-abuse allegations against clergymen in the archdiocese are credible. Still, Huger says, "The Church has a fiduciary responsibility to all those people that it serves not to pay an exorbitant amount to resolve a claim. If a person makes a demand that we consider to be exorbitant, then we'll have to go to court."

On August 17, 2007, Church lawyers deposed John Doe and dived deep into his personal and sexual history. They inquired whether he'd ever had relations with another man. (He said no.) When Doe expressed remorse about the abuse, one of the attorneys, Ed Goldenhersh, asked if maybe he felt guilty that what Cooper did was somehow pleasurable.

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