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12 to sue priest, Peoria diocese; ultra-right group tied to case

NCR Staff

Charging that they were sexually abused as altar boys, 12 young men -- most now in their 20s and 30s -- plan to sue the Peoria, Ill., diocese and Msgr. Norman Goodman, the former pastor of Holy Family Church in Lincoln, Ill., according to an attorney involved in the case.

The suit will claim that Goodman first molested one of the 12 in the 1970s, with most allegations stemming from the 1980s. According to accounts in the local media, the young men say that at least twice over that period of time the diocese was informed about the abuse but failed to take action.

Through a diocesan spokesperson, Goodman has denied the accusations. Goodman, who had been at Holy Family since 1962, resigned as pastor and left Lincoln abruptly in late October, saying in the bulletin only that “35 years is a long time to stay in one parish, and you are deserving of having a new pastor.”

Suspicions of a larger ideological agenda in the case have been raised due to the involvement of James Bendell, one of two attorneys representing the alleged victims. Bendell is on the board of Roman Catholic Faithful, a conservative advocacy group operated out of a pizza parlor in Petersburg, Ill., in the Springfield diocese. The group, on whose behalf Bendell travels and speaks around the country, describes its purpose as “to fight actively and spiritually to restore Holy Mother Church.”

Last February the president of RCF, Stephen Brady, publicly accused another church official of sexual misconduct. Following the news conference in which he leveled the accusations, Brady declined to produce proof, leading many to discredit the charges.

Observers of the Lincoln case stress, however, that despite the RCF connection, no evidence has been presented to date that would suggest the accusations against Goodman were fabricated.

Brady referred the first few alleged victims in the Lincoln case to Bendell. Brady says the family of one of the victims contacted him because they were familiar with his work and his views on church affairs from the RCF newsletter. The rest of the 12 responded to an advertisement in the local newspaper seeking additional victims, Bendell said. Nine more individuals have reported being abused by Goodman, Bendell said, but have not yet agreed to join the suit. None has been publicly identified.

Kathleen Sass, a spokesperson for the Springfield diocese familiar with RCF, told the Lincoln Courier she thinks RCF might be attacking Goodman to gain attention, based on its track record of making accusations against church officials. “If I had to wildly guess, I would say so, but I would be wildly guessing,” she said. “I think they [RCF] are sad, angry, injured people.”

Bendell flatly denied the charge to NCR. “To suggest that I would manufacture these allegations in order to press an RCF agenda is outrageous and totally illogical,” Bendell said. It’s illogical, Bendell claimed, because the Peoria diocese under its conservative bishop, John Myers, is “one of the few places we’d give a good report card to. Why would we choose that diocese of all places?”

“We have 12 young men who came to us. I didn’t go out and find them,” Bendell said. “They all told us the same story.”

Joe Hosey, the reporter who has covered the Goodman story for the Courier, conducted interviews with two of the alleged victims. “When I spoke to them, I would not say they were led by their attorneys,” he told NCR. “They seemed steadfast in their statements.”

Myers has indicated through his spokesperson, Kate Kenny, that he supports Goodman. “Goodman is vehemently denying the accusations,” Kenny said, “and the bishop is standing by him.” Kenny, who said she is also acting as Goodman’s spokesperson, told NCR that she’s not sure where Goodman is now.

Some residents of Lincoln, a town of 15,000 in central Illinois, have circulated a petition supporting Goodman, collecting approximately 1,000 signatures.

Bendell said he and attorney Fred Nessler of Springfield, Ill., intend to file the lawsuit by the end of March. He said a determination as to the dollar amount of damages they will seek awaits the results of a psychological evaluation of each of the 12 men involved.

Bendell said it was up to the clients whether they would accept a settlement in the case, but he would be “willing to talk” with diocesan attorneys about the possibility.

In addition, Bendell said, one of the 12 is a minor, and criminal charges may yet be filed against Goodman in that case.

Bendell declined to be specific about the nature of the accusations against Goodman, saying only that they involved “fondling” rather than penetration, and that most victims were abused as minors, usually beginning when they were in “fourth grade or up.”

Bendell said he handled a 1994 case in Seattle in which three priests faced similar charges. The Seattle archdiocese eventually settled that case before trial, Bendell said. He said he is prevented by the terms of the settlement from discussing the dollar amounts involved.

Bendell is scheduled to appear at an RCF meeting in Anaheim, Calif., in February, timed to coincide with the annual Los Angeles Religious Education Congress. There he will present a session called “Focus on a Heretic” about one speaker at the congress; Bendell won’t identify which speaker, saying he wants all of them to “wonder if he or she is it.” The point is to send a message that RCF is evaluating speakers for doctrinal orthodoxy, Bendell said.

Brady and Bendell are giving another session titled “The Los Angeles Game Plan,” where they intend to organize an “investigation” of what they see as serious doctrinal irregularities under Cardinal Roger Mahony’s leadership of the archdiocese.

National Catholic Reporter, January 23, 1998