Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Whatever happened at Father Cooper's cabin in 1971, the archdiocese isn't responsible

Whatever happened at Father Cooper's cabin in 1971, the archdiocese isn't responsible
Comments (3) By Nicholas Phillips Wednesday, Jul 14 2010 Riverfront.times

In the late 1990s, a Mehlville man began sliding in and out of severe depression. He'd go days without showering. Fifty-two years old and a father of three, he usually managed to drag himself to his blue-collar union job at a large utility company, but sometimes he couldn't. On days off, his wife had to order him to get up and brush his teeth.

In July 1998, the man — whose attorneys have advised him to be identified in this story only as John Doe — spent several days in treatment for depression at Des Peres Hospital where, in a fit, he locked himself in the nurse's medicine closet. The staff had to summon his wife to come and coax him out. In March 2000 he underwent electroconvulsive therapy. Meanwhile he was swallowing various combinations of pills. Nothing helped.

The death of his twin brother in 1996 had triggered the downward spiral. But Doe remembers his doctor, Rick Mofsen, concluding that the source of his depression had to run deeper.

"All I wanted to do was die," Doe recalls on a recent afternoon. Hard of hearing, he speaks loudly and in rapid, nervous fragments, with the high vowels typical of south St. Louis (as in, Highway farty-far). His eyes grow wide and pink from tears as he recounts his story. John Doe wants — needs — to be believed.

"I wouldn't kill myself because I wouldn't do that to my kids," he says, stifling a sob. "But if they'd told me I had cancer, I'd have been happy."

On the morning of April 2, 2002, Doe found himself in his seventh therapy session with psychologist Thomas Lantsberger, who inquired whether Doe had been sexually abused as a child. "At first I denied it," Doe says, "but he kept asking. He must've known he hit on something. And all of a sudden — I'm not making this up — it came back, like it was yesterday."

Lantsberger wrote it down: "Primary issue was [patient] revealing for [the] first time to anyone that he sustained sexual abuse by a priest on at least two occasions..."

The alleged crime took place in 1971 at the priest's vacation house, southwest of St. Louis, near the Big River. John Doe was thirteen years old.

At first, Doe was embarrassed, fearing others might find out. Right after leaving Lantsberger's office in Lemay, he met his wife for lunch at Chevy's at Crestwood Court. He told her he had something awful to tell her. "She thought I was going to say I was leaving her, but I told her I'd been abused, and she looked at me, like, 'Holy Jesus.'"

In the next few months he reluctantly shared his revelation with a small set of friends and most of his nine siblings. They remembered the priest, Father Thomas T. Cooper, from his dozen years as associate pastor at their childhood parish, St. Mary Magdalen in south St. Louis. One of Doe's sisters had even been married by Cooper.

Dr. Mofsen counseled his patient to call the authorities. Doe contacted Ken Chackes, a St. Louis attorney who specializes in sexual-abuse litigation. A lawsuit was filed in 2005.

By that time, it was too late to sue Father Cooper. The priest had died of lung disease on Christmas Eve 2003, at the age of 76. Instead, Doe filed suit against the Archdiocese of St. Louis, claiming that the Church intentionally failed to supervise the clergyman back in the early 1970s.

In Missouri, a childhood victim of clergy sex abuse normally has until the age of 26 to bring action against the archdiocese. Doe's lawyers, though, insisted that their client was entitled to an extension because he didn't remember the abuse until his fateful therapy session in 2002.

The Church argued to the contrary. Many times before, they had contended that the hourglass of justice was already spent, and had prevailed. This time, they did not.

But the Church chose to defend itself in another way, one that again completely sidestepped the charge of molestation. If in fact Cooper did commit the offense, they argued, it would have occurred at Cooper's vacation house, off Church property, and outside of Church control.

Twenty-second Circuit Court Judge Donald L. McCullin agreed. His March 5, 2010 decision marked the first time a Missouri judge had ever ruled in the Church's favor based on where the actual sexual abuse took place.

In the ten-page ruling, McCullin stated, "The Court believes that the location of the inappropriate sexual conduct itself is the determinative issue..."

Church critics decried the judge's rationale, fuming that the archdiocese got off on a "technicality," thereby denying Doe his day in court in order to save its own reputation. And this, at a time when the pope has at last publicly apologized for the broader scandal and promised to crack down on offending priests.

Archdiocese attorney Bernie Huger, who declined to comment on this case specifically, says the Church will always offer assistance to victims but will resist any legal challenge if an accusation is found to lack credibility or if a victim demands an "exorbitant" sum of money for compensation.

With a dead priest, a recovered memory and an opaque litigation process, the truth in this case is difficult to pin down. What really happened to John Doe in the summer of 1971? And if indeed he was sexually abused, who is now responsible?

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