Church sex abuse–Oregon deposition of Cardinal Levada

Sex abuse is one of those challenging areas where lawyers have to tread. I have handled several civil cases for sex abuse victims over the years. They’re tough.  The victims lives are often trashed. The amount of denial and levels to which some will go to protect predators is horrifying.

These topics cause fires, so I’ll lay out my background and biases here. First, I write this as someone with experience representing sex abuse victims, though I have not handled any cases against the Church. I am not Catholic, though I have friends who are engaged in the Church and friends who have left it over the years.  My daughter attends St. Mary’s Academy, a fabulous Catholic school here in Portland. The school is particularly welcoming to those of us who are not Christian.

Today’s story focuses on Cardinal Levada, a high ranking Vatican official who has been extremely critical of press editorials regarding the Church’s failures in dealing with child sex abuse problems. Cardinal Levada previously served as Archbishop in Portland.  Oregon attorney Erin Olson deposed then-Archbishop Levada in connection with Church sex abuse cases here.  (Technical law term: A “deposition” is pre-trial testimony taken under oath.)

Ms. Olson–who has handled many of the Oregon church sex abuse cases–had the deposition transcript in her files, and she released it yesterday to The Oregonian. According to the news report, Ms. Olson explains that Cardinal Levada reinstated an Oregon priest who was a child sex abuser.  The story quotes from the transcript. While there are always differences in how people interpret evidence or testimony, my own take is that the quoted testimony suggests that Cardinal Levada was at least inattentive to the horrible risks of priest sex abuse.  At a minimum, it’s easy to see that Cardinal Levada’s own experience in the civil justice system might undercut his criticism of those who question the Church’s actions.

I suppose some legitimately may feel that the Church has been unfairly criticized and that it has done enough to confront and repair this awful black chapter in its history. On the other extreme, there are those who see what the Church did and what it failed to do as unforgivable, no matter what. I tend to fall toward the middle.

The Church has confronted some of the misdeeds from these dark times. But that only happened because the victims mustered the immense courage to come forward to challenge the Church. As well, the civil justice system and dedicated and tough attorneys like Erin Olson refused to back down. And facing those things and the awful and immutable truth beneath, the Church had some of its reckoning.  I use “some” deliberately here, as it looks to me like there is far to go.

Perhaps I’m naive, but I don’t accept that any group of people, any nation, any religion or any institution is beyond redemption. So I hope that those in the Church committed to healing and reconciliation continue their efforts.  I also hope that leadership of the Church stops the circling of wagons and defensiveness, as these are legitimate criticisms and questions.  Denouncing the critics like The New York Times or the victims or their attorneys seems to me to be the opposite of reconciliation.

Halliburton/KBR continue fight against rape victim Jaimie Leigh Jones

Sometimes the best legal advice to a recalcitrant client about their case is, “Stick a fork in it; it’s done.” And so it goes with KBR and the horrifying case of Jamie Leigh Jones.

When Ms. Jones claimed that she was drugged and raped while working in Iraq, KBR and Halliburton worked hard to keep her sexual assault case quiet by forcing it into mandatory arbitration. Fortunately, judicial wisdom prevailed, and KBR eventually lost the Jones case in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.  And those who trail behind her have the benefit of Senator Franken’s great work in limiting mandatory arbitration for defense contractors.

But KBR is both angry and undeterred. As this this report explains, KBR now disputes Ms. Jones’ allegations that she was drugged and gang raped by co-workers. KBR reportedly made those points in its brief seeking U.S. Supreme Court review.

While Ms. Jones blew the whistle five years ago, KBR now says Ms. Jones fabricated her story. Odd if you think about it.  If KBR actually doubted Ms. Jones, wouldn’t they have taken that position years ago? And more to the point, given all the publicity over the rapes in Iraq, isn’t it fair to assume that they would want to fight this thing publicly and loudly?

I’ll admit to biases and a point of view. They come from two sources. First, I’m a father, a husband, a son and a brother. Every woman in my family has worked. When my wife and daughter go to work, I think it’s a modest demand that they not be subjected to sexual violence. Apart from that, I represent Oregon National Guard soldiers in unrelated litigation involving toxic exposures at Qarmat Ali. I am not intending to comment on that case–we’ll leave it to our proof.  Still, the KBR litigation posture is telling.

I suppose it’s just too much to demand that KBR simply accept that it lost and go to trial.  Owing to the genius of our founders, we have jury trials to allow impartial fact finders to decide cases. That right exists so that the Jaimie Leigh Jones’s of the world can force KBR to prove its defense or shut up.

David Sugerman