THE CHURCH BUYS SILENCE
When I read Bishop Thomas O'Brien's challenge in the Arizona Republic recently, I decided this would be a trial worth watching.
The message, read from the pulpit in all Catholic parishes, announced that the church was being forced to go to trial because of the excessive demands of the suit filed by attorney Richard Treon. The church was being sued for damages because a priest had sexually molested a young boy. After learning about the bishop's message, Treon asked for a mistrial. He viewed it as virtual jury tampering. His motion was turned down by Judge William T. Moroney. The excruciating process of seating a jury began.
This promised to be the most compelling civil suit in memory against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix.
Van Heywood, a former member of St. Theresa parish, 5045 East Thomas, was, along with his wife and nine children, seeking civil damages from the church and Bishop O'Brien. The Heywoods claimed their family was destroyed because one of their adopted sons, now 22 years old, had been sexually molested by Father George Bredemann, then an assistant pastor at St. Theresa.
Between 1981 and 1988, all nine Heywood children were pupils at St. Theresa grade school. The suit claimed that Father George Bredemann had come to the family and volunteered to help their adopted son. Instead, Bredemann molested the boy.
Bredemann has already pleaded guilty to multiple sex charges involving several children and is now serving 45 years in prison. The issue to be tried was whether the church could be held responsible for Bredemann's acts.
Treon's game plan was to call Bredemann as his first witness, to be followed by Bishop O'Brien himself. There would be a lot of press coverage. For the church, the downside of the publicity could be great.
The picking of the jury would be crucial. The stakes were so high that the diocese hired a team of jury-picking experts who sat in the rear row of court during jury selection. Could the jury be stacked with loyal Catholics who had heard Bishop O'Brien's call to arms at all church services the Sunday before jury selection began?
Or would it be filled with an equally large number of anti-Catholics eager to deal a blow against the church because of long-standing animosities?
Usually, jury selection is a dull process. Not this time. You could feel the tension in the court as Judge Moroney questioned the jurors, attempting to probe their beliefs and possible prejudices. There came a point when there were still 50 prospective jurors remaining. Judge Moroney seemed to be succumbing to the pressure.
For a few moments, he was neither serene nor judicial. In fact, Moroney appeared distinctly agitated as he shifted back and forth in his chair with startling bursts of energy. Peering down at the seating chart of prospective jurors in front of him, Judge Moroney established in his mind the name of the potential juror he wanted to question next. There were no spectators in the court. The only outsiders were the jury-picking experts hired by the lawyers for the Catholic Church.
Judge Moroney allowed the name of the prospective juror to explode from his mouth. It was almost as though he were attempting to surprise the candidate by verbally pouncing upon him:
"Mr. Jones!" Judge Moroney shouted at the man in the front row of the jury box.
"No," the man replied, "I'm not Jones. My name is Butterfield."
"Sorry," Judge Moroney said, clearly embarrassed.
From two seats down, a man raised his arm. He was smiling, attempting to please the judge: "I'm Jones!" he said loudly.
"Having trouble with this seating chart," Judge Moroney said sheepishly. Judge Moroney was indeed having trouble with his seating chart. In fact, for the two hours of his questioning that I spent in court watching, Judge Moroney never succeeded in picking the correct person's name from his chart. The actual juror prospect was always two or three seats away from the person Judge Moroney was seeking.
"Let me ask you this question," Judge Moroney said. "Could you set aside your own feelings and award damages from the defendant if the plaintiff convinced you he was right? Would that be a problem?"
Judge Moroney's question was clearly aimed at prospective jurors who might be members of the Catholic Church.
"I would be sympathetic toward the young man," one prospective juror said. "I would have no problem."
Then the judge said:
"There is no formula for computing injuries, whether they are emotional or physical. The decision will rest with the jurors in this case."
"I have a problem with awarding damages in an exorbitant amount," said one prospect.
Judge Moroney soothed the man's fears.
"I promise that no one will be asked to set excessive damages in this court," he said. "What we do expect is that you will award what the evidence suggests you award."
"Does each juror decide how much the award should be?" a man asked.
"No," Judge Moroney said, "the verdict will be arrived at collectively. You will exchange points of view."
Then Judge Moroney hit the key point.
"The defendant in this case is a church," he said. "Will that cause you to receive evidence differently than you would if it were any other institution or individual?
"The defendant, in fact, is the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix. Would that cause you to have difficulty evaluating the evidence?"
One prospective juror in the front row raised his arm high.
"I have contributed all my life to Catholic charities," the man said. "I've been brought up in the church, and I've done lots of work for the church."
Judge Moroney asked, "Would that make it difficult for you?"
"My answer is that I would feel very odd about it. I could give a verdict against the priest, but I don't think I could ever do so against the church as a whole."
Judge Moroney thanked the man and excused him from jury duty.
Then another man at the other end of the jury box raised his arm.
He felt the same way. He, too, was excused.
Now there were 36 prospective jurors left on the panel. There were no more Roman Catholics who felt they could not vote against the church.
You can figure what happened next.
The two experts on hand to help the church's law firm pick a jury explained what the odds of winning the case now were. They were not good.
Losing this case would create a mountain of bad publicity. If the case actually went to trial, there would be extensive press coverage. There would be almost daily television coverage.
The story of Father Bredemann, the pederast priest, would be aired in public once again. Bishop O'Brien would be on the witness stand. And there was the possibility of a large verdict awarded against the church. Even if the church won the case, the whole thing would leave a bad aroma.
An overture was made to the plaintiffs. A settlement conference was arranged. After three hours, both sides agreed to settle their differences.
But the settlement was sealed. We will never know how much the church paid to avoid the publicity of this trial.
We are left to ponder one thing: Is there ever a time when the church will be able to take a case like this to an open trial? Must it always settle to maintain the silence?
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