April 26, 2004

News Story

By Anne C. Vitale

The parents of a 12-year-old boy who was sexually abused by a Catholic priest have settled their case against the Archdiocese of St. Louis for over $1.6 million.

The parents, who claimed the Archdiocese had notice of the Rev. Gary Wolken's pedophile tendencies before he began abusing their son, argued that the Archdiocese negligently failed to protect the boy. Wolken later pleaded guilty to multiple counts of statutory sodomy and child molestation and is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence.

"The victim's parents feel that this significant settlement is a recognition by the Archdiocese of its responsibility," said Robert F. Ritter, the St. Louis attorney for the plaintiffs. "While the family has maintained their faith, there is continued pain and despair over this tragedy."

The Archdiocese's attorney, Edward M. Goldenhersh of St. Louis, confirmed that the settlement is the largest in history against the St. Louis Archdiocese. To put the $1.6 million figure in context, the Archdiocese recently reported spending a total of $3.2 million to address clergy sex abuse claims over the 10-year period preceding this pay-out.

A settlement report on the case, Doe v. Archdiocese of St. Louis, appears on Page 5.

Sexual Abuse

Gary Wolken was the associate pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in the city of St. Louis. The 38-year-old priest had been a close friend of the boy's family, who belonged to a parish in west St. Louis County. Wolken often joined the family for dinner, social events and holidays.

Wolken admitted sexually abusing the boy between August 1997 and July 2000, often while babysitting. Specifically, he admitted exposing himself to the boy, inappropriately touching him and having oral sex with him over the three-year period beginning when the boy was in kindergarten.

In March 2002, the parents reported the abuse to their parish pastor, who then told the Rev. Timothy Dolan, the point-man on the Archdiocese's clergy sex abuse response team. Dolan, now Archbishop of Milwaukee, contacted the child abuse hotline operated by the St. Louis County Division of Family Services, which relayed the information to the St. Louis County prosecutor's office.

Wolken was subsequently placed on administrative leave from the priesthood and sent to an archdiocesan medical center in Michigan.

Wolken pleaded guilty to two counts of statutory sodomy and six counts of child molestation in December 2002. On Feb. 28, 2003, St. Louis Circuit Judge John Kintz sentenced him to concurrent 15-year sentences for each sodomy charge and concurrent 7-year sentences for the molestation charges. St. Louis County assistant prosecutor Rob Livergood had sought a 20-year sentence, telling Judge Kintz that probation would not ensure that other children would be safe from Wolken, whom Livergood claimed had committed a similar but unprosecuted crime 22 years earlier.

Wolken is now about a year into his sentence at the South Central Correctional Center in Licking, Mo. He was the first priest from the St. Louis Archdiocese to be sent to prison for a sexual abuse conviction since the nationwide scandal emerged in 2002. Wolken, who attended Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, was a classmate of the Rev. Bryan Kuchar — who was subsequently convicted of sexual abuse and is currently serving a three-year sentence in the Clayton County Jail.

Prior Notice

During the police investigation of the reported abuse, attorney Ritter said information surfaced regarding a history of abuse allegations against Wolken. For instance, when Wolken was assigned to Ascension Parish in Chesterfield in 1997, several allegations of "inappropriate behavior" were made against Wolken.

Thus, Ritter conducted his own investigation of Wolken's past. Over a several month period, Ritter stressed that the Archdiocese was extremely cooperative and voluntarily provided detailed documentation on Wolken.

Most notably, Ritter discovered that following the 1997 abuse allegations, the Archdiocese placed Wolken in a treatment and therapy program for his questionable conduct. He said the Archdiocese received reports from the therapy center that confirmed Wolken's deviant tendencies. Ritter said this information solidified the plaintiffs' position that the Archdiocese had ample notice of Wolken's dangerous propensities at the time he began abusing the plaintiff in August 1997.

Thus the plaintiffs argued that the Archdiocese negligently failed to supervise one of its employees known to be a pedo-phile, and thereby failed to protect the boy. The plaintiffs claimed the Archdiocese should have cut Wolken off from the community at large and reported his conduct to law enforcement authorities. In addition, they argued that the Archdiocese had an obligation to identify all those in contact with Wolken and inform them that their children may be in danger.

However, the Archdiocese declined to take any action against Wolken. As a result, Ritter said, "Wolken continued to wear the collar and use his position in the Church to seduce and abuse this child."

In response to the plaintiff's allegations, the Archdiocese maintained that it had no notice of the severity of Wolken's criminal tendencies. The Archdiocese also denied any specific knowledge that Wolken was abusing the minor plaintiff, and denied that Wolken was acting as the Archdiocese's employee or agent at the time he committed any criminal acts.

Goldenhersh said the Archdiocese considered taking this case to trial — considering the barrier to liability articulated by the Missouri Supreme Court in the 1997 case of Gibson v. Brewer. In that case, the court said that in order to make a case against the Church, the plaintiffs had to prove a "willful or reckless failure to supervise" the defendant — a much higher standard than a negligence standard.

In this case, Ritter said the plaintiffs would have been required to prove that the Archdiocese had actual knowledge of Wolken's abuse of the minor plaintiff, which they could not prove. Nevertheless, he said the plaintiffs had a strong case and likely would've prevailed in the lower courts. If not, Ritter said he was prepared to ask the Supreme Court to reconsider the Gibson decision, which he said is too restrictive.

But Ritter said the parties reached the settlement early in the litigation process, before trial was ever scheduled. In the end, he considered the settlement a reasonable outcome.

"It is my hope that this settlement will open the door for others who have been injured to be compensated for their significant injuries and that eventually the Church can put this very unfortunate chapter in its history behind it," he said.


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