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Cal Pfeiffer, from left, Jeff Koenig, Jeanette Westbrook, and Warren Tucker gather June 8 for a meeting of the Louisville (Ky.) chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. / Alton Strupp, The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Ten years ago this month, Shannon Age and 242 other plaintiffs settled their lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Louisville over sexual abuse by priests and other church workers for what was then a near-record amount of $25.7 million.

Even before the settlement, Age had begun a reconciliation with the Catholic Church, despite years of battles with church bureaucracy and traumatic memories over the abusive priest who had exploited her parents' trust.

But when her husband, Steve, told her he felt a divine call to become a deacon, Age "was very much against it," she said. "I didn't want my husband being a member of the clergy."

Now she regularly joins him at the training program with about 20 other deacon candidates and their wives.

"Healing is possible," Age, 53, said.

A decade after the accord, some of the plaintiffs have reconciled with the church, while others remain distrustful of its handling of abuse cases past and present.

Many survivors say they believe the lawsuits and resulting settlement helped get abusive priests removed from ministry and new policies to prevent future abuse.

Victims received $20,000 to $218,801, depending on the severity of the abuse. Some used it for counseling, others for school, financial needs, savings or charity.

All the plaintiffs interviewed recently said money wasn't the object - justice and reform were.

"If we hadn't all joined up in the numbers we did, they would have swept it under the rug," said Bernard Queenan, who was abused by former priest Louis E. Miller. "The settlement itself was not the purpose. ... The purpose was to bring it into the light of day, and we certainly did that."

Brian Reynolds, chancellor and chief administrative officer for the archdiocese, agreed that the settlement was necessary, even though it prompted budget and staff cuts.

"I wish the abuse had never happened, but we needed to respond to those men and women who were hurt, and we did," he said.

Even so, sexual assault victims such as Jeff Koenig remain deeply skeptical of the Catholic Church's follow-through on sexual abuse allegations.

He cites such cases as St. Therese parish, which housed priest James Schook, in 2009 and 2010 while he was under investigation for abuse; Schook is now awaiting trial. That controversy also brought to light the presence of a parish board member with a statutory rape conviction, contrary to archdiocesan policy banning volunteers with any history of sex offenses.

The sexual-abuse crisis in Louisville - as in the Roman Catholic Church elsewhere - simmered for years before igniting in early 2002 following revelations of cover-ups in Boston.

Louisville Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly, who had previously kept several priests in ministry after confirming cases of abuse against them, resisted calls by critics to resign. Kelly retired in 2007 and died in 2011.

When lawyers for the archdiocese and 243 plaintiffs reached the $25.7 million settlement in June 2003, it was the second-highest payout ever by an American diocese and the highest paid directly by the church rather than through liability insurance.

"When we couple the monetary result with the public pronouncement of an apology, that restored the dignity even more than the money did," said local attorney William F. McMurry, who sued the archdiocese on behalf of hundreds of plaintiffs. McMurry and other lawyers representing victims received about 40 percent of the settlement.

Several other plaintiffs reached individual settlements.

Reynolds said the U.S. bishops' 2002 adoption of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People transformed the church's approach.

"There's no question the church did not handle accusations and reports of abuse well" in the past, he said. "Now we're in a new mode. It's about education, prevention, healing, awareness."

Since 2002, the archdiocese has trained 32,000 clergy, lay employees and volunteers on signs of abuse and the need to report suspected abuse directly to law enforcement. Children also receive training on self-protection. Several times, Reynolds said, children and adults have come forward to trainers, seeking guidance on potentially abusive situations in their homes or other settings.

Annual audits conducted for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have consistently given the Archdiocese of Louisville passing grades for its response to abuse.

Healing through helping

Many survivors, including Koenig, say they have found healing through helping others - whether by supporting their fellow survivors or through missions and other charitable work.

Koenig advocated for victims and was part of the successful lobbying effort in 2008 that changed Kentucky law to increase penalties for sexual abusers and those who protect them.

"Helping other survivors is very burden-lifting to me," said Koenig, now of Jeffersonville, Ind., and a company truck driver. "I don't have the anger and the resentment and the bitterness that I did."

Michael Turner, who was the first to sue the archdiocese in April 2002, said he experienced a similar sense of healing when he "got into helping."

Turner, a construction contractor, operates a bakery with his daughter and raises funds for a charity for children with developmental difficulties.

In 2002, Turner had long been alienated from the Catholic Church and was struggling with nightmares over his memories of abuse at the hands of Miller while growing up in the 1970s at St. Aloysius Church in Pewee Valley.

When he saw a Courier-Journal article in April 2002 indicating that Miller had just retired - long after the archdiocese learned of his abusive behavior - Turner contacted McMurry, who sued the archdiocese on Turner's behalf. Miller eventually testified that three successive archbishops knew of his sexual offenses as far back as the early 1960s.

More than 200 others sued in the coming year, charging the archdiocese with covering up abuse between 1949 and 2002 by more than three dozen priests and other people associated with the church.

Miller, who is 82 and housed at the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange, has served 10 of his 30 years in prison sentences.

Turner is now active at St. Aloysius, crediting the compassion showed by its recently retired pastor, the Rev. John Caldwell, and positive memories of his youth there.

"I'm a happy man right now," said Turner, 55. "I'm happily married. I've got grandkids now. They're beautiful and all. I have my moments, but it's still so much better."

'Business as usual'

Many of the plaintiffs have bonded with each other, including numerous former Holy Spirit School classmates from the early 1960s who were victimized by Miller.

Queenan, 64, said he and other former classmates regularly get together for pizza and chats on topics that range from church to grandchildren.

But Queenan still believes the crisis "just doesn't seem to have humbled the church as it might. It's business as usual."

Age said the decade since the settlement has been transformative in personal ways.

She and Steve Age had long been involved with their parish and in short-term mission work in Appalachia and Latin America. It took Shannon some time to reconcile with Steve's desire to be a deacon, "but after prayerful consideration I realized he really did have a deep calling."

Steve Age said: "She chose to take a bad situation and let God turn it into good."

Shannon Age, who wrote a portion of the archdiocese's training manual on how abusers "groom" their victims or lure them into a vulnerable relationship, said that at the time of the lawsuits, many in the church perceived the litigation as a personal affront.

"The whole dynamic in the past 10 years has changed" since then, she said, with priests and others acknowledging the abuse and the plaintiffs' desire to prevent it in the future.

"It took them a few tries in the beginning," Age said. "But they really have gotten it."

"Justice did need to be brought," she said, and the church needed to "recognize there was a problem that needed to be fixed. ? At the same time, you have to learn to forgive. Otherwise you hold yourself hostage."



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: After priest abuse settlement, 'healing is possible'

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