Religious institutions acknowledge, apologize, and embrace accusers, resolve lawsuits
and vow continued zero tolerance
DALLAS – In what all sides are calling a unique global end to the legal conflict between them, nine plaintiffs, the Jesuit College Preparatory School (Jesuit Dallas), Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province, and the Catholic Diocese of Dallas have resolved litigation and have created a plan to better deal with issues related to sexual abuse now and in the future.
“All I really wanted was to be heard,” says Michael Pedevilla, who is among the plaintiffs who have agreed to drop their lawsuits against Jesuit Dallas, the Catholic Diocese of Dallas, and the Catholic Society of Religious and Literary Education, which is affiliated with the Jesuits U.S. Central and Southern Province through common control (“UCS Province”), for sexual abuse of minors by priests more than 35 years ago. “Now, finally, I can begin to heal.”
Even at bitter moments of legal conflict, former Jesuit Dallas students who report they had been sexually abused, and the religious institutions they were suing, believed that something positive could be built. Over time, legal processes took a back seat in favor of numerous, sometimes painful, face-to-face encounters between plaintiffs and defendants, as well as dialogue guided by lawyers Charla AldousTom Melsheimer and by Lee Taft, a former plaintiff’s litigator and Harvard Divinity School graduate and former dean, who specializes in helping parties heal through apology, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
“I have spoken with each of these men,” says Jesuit Dallas President Mike Earsing. “After listening as they told me what happened and how their lives have been affected, I believe them. I communicated to each of them my sorrow, my own spirit of disconsolation, and an apology.”
While confidential financial compensation is part of the unique multiparty resolution and reconciliation agreement, more emphasis is being placed on binding measures intended to embrace and empathize with past victims, acknowledge their pain, prevent future misconduct, and continue measures in place to prevent future misconduct. Jesuit Dallas has agreed to create a memorial dedicated to victims of sexual abuse involving religious leaders. In addition, the school will reaffirm its commitment to continue policies and procedures that have successfully been in place for many years, including:
- Require school employees to complete an annual safe environment program at the school, focused on maintaining appropriate relationships with minors.
- Require staff, students, and parents to pledge to report reasonable suspicion of sexual misconduct by faculty, staff, or other adult members of the Jesuit community.
- Engage in the comprehensive screening of all new staff members.
- Provide prompt notification to law enforcement upon receipt of a report of sexual abuse of a minor.
Finally, Jesuit Dallas will provide a third-party contact on the Jesuit Dallas website who can be contacted if there are any concerns pertaining to the safety of the school community or any instance of sexual abuse. The initial person in this role will be Mr. Taft.
“In these cases, it is often more about healing, ending isolation, and restoring community than it is about money,” says Mr. Taft, who was previously instrumental in forging a legal settlement in what is commonly known as the Dallas police “fake-drug scandal.” “I hope this resolution can serve as a template where the abused and religious organizations are seeking a productive path forward.”
In December 2018, the UCS Province released a list of members and former members against whom there were credible allegations of sexual abuse of minors. In January 2019, the Dallas Diocese released its own list of priests who were credibly accused of having inflicted abuse of minors. Jesuit priests identified by plaintiffs as their perpetrators include Fr. Donald Dickerson, Fr. Patrick Koch, Fr. Benjamin Smylie, Fr. Vincent Malatesta, and Fr. Peter Callery. Three of these priests are deceased and one left the Society of Jesus. There is only one current Jesuit among the accused, Fr. Callery. He denies the allegations brought against him, which were made by two of the plaintiffs. The UCS Province is continuing to investigate the allegations made against these five priests. Notably, the school and the UCS Province have had in place, for many years, safe-environment, and zero-tolerance policies. Jesuit Dallas has had no other credible reports of sexual abuse of any kind involving an adult abusing a minor in decades, other than lawsuits filed since 2019 which involve allegations from more than 35 years ago.
The Catholic Diocese of Dallas, which is a separate and distinct entity from Jesuit Dallas and the Jesuit Order, and which only had one claim as to Dallas priest Robert Crisp, is continuing an ongoing collaboration and dialogue with plaintiffs to, among other things, respond to their concerns, improve screening and prevention throughout the Diocese, and provide for healing and reconciliation.
“I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to speak with several of the abuse survivors of this case in order to address the need for healing and accountability, a process that has a sense of justice, understanding, and compassion,” says Bishop Edward J. Burns. “The Diocese of Dallas remains vigilant in our efforts to provide the safest environment possible to all we serve. I pray for continued healing for these men and all victims of abuse.”
Additional restorative steps by the Catholic Diocese of Dallas include:
- Enhanced victim-centered reporting of sexual abuse, including a dedicated email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Monitoring of online abuse claims.
- Expanding the Diocesan Review Board, which investigates allegations of sexual abuse, to include a member who has been directly impacted by sexual abuse.
- A planned healing mass for victims, spouses/partners, children, families, the Church, and the community.
- Uniform policies for school reporting of abuse at Diocesan and Non-Diocesan Schools.
The UCS Province agreed to 16 restorative measures (the majority of which have been in place for many years) that will include, at the suggestion of the Provincial, Father Tom Greene, S.J., his participation in a full-day retreat with Plaintiffs as well as a Mass of Atonement to be held in Dallas. When asked about the reconciliation that the UCS Province hopes will accompany this resolution, Fr. Greene responded as follows: “I sincerely apologize to any person who has been impacted by abuse related to any of our members or former members. Abuse of a minor under any circumstances is a crime and a sin for which perpetrators need to be held accountable. We have recently resolved several lawsuits because it is our hope to try and bring healing to persons who report they have suffered. We pray for all persons involved.”
The Jesuit Order also agreed to:
- Continue public disclosure of all members and former members who have been credibly accused of child sexual abuse.
- Take steps to address any memorial, tribute, or honor relating to individuals listed on the UCS Province credibly accused list, when such memorials, tributes, or honors are known and within the control of the Province.
- Continue to publish processes/protocols for reporting child abuse in conspicuous places such as the Province website at https://www.jesuitscentralsouthern.org/ and to encourage the schools of the UCS Province to publish those processes/protocols in conspicuous places where notices are typically posted.
Charla Aldous represented the nine plaintiffs. “This is the end of a long, sometimes contentious, and painful journey for my clients. We are pleased that defendants responded by being part of the solution.” According to Aldous \ Walker law partner Brent Walker, “Our clients feel that they could not have received greater justice.”
Attorney and Jesuit Dallas Alumnus Tom Melsheimer says he collaborated with Jesuit Dallas President Mike Earsing to find a solution that best reflects values central to the school’s mission. “We could have chosen an adversarial path of litigation and ultimately succeeded. But our motto is ‘Men for Others.’ I just knew that the values inherent in that motto, which we share with those who had been abused many years ago, would lead us on a path to doing some good for these men, our alumni brothers. We wanted to live our values.” Mr. Melsheimer said.