Courier-Journal - Kentucky April 13, 2011
Archdiocese of Louisville claims freedom of religion as defense in employee suit
The Archdiocese of Louisville says the constitutional protection of freedom of religion should shield it from a former parish employee’s lawsuit alleging she was fired for objecting to the presence of a priest accused of sexual abuse.
The archdiocese also argues in court documents it has the right to use “discretion” in keeping employees from
making "potentially defamatory" statements about an accused priest whose case is still being investigated.
But the former employee, Margie Weiter, argues in court papers that she was fired for challenging the archdiocese to live up to its policies on keeping accused priests away from children.
The claims by both sides come in various court filings now pending in Jefferson Circuit Court. Judge Mitch Perry said after a hearing Monday he would consider the motions and hold another hearing on April 25.
The archdiocese is asking Perry to dismiss the lawsuit.
Weiter and her husband, Gary Weiter Sr., sued in January, alleging she was wrongfully terminated from her
bookkeeping job at St. Therese in May 2010 in retaliation for complaining about the presence of the Rev. James Schook.
The archdiocese says, however, she was laid off because of budget cuts. She now works part-time at another parish.
Schook had been pastor of St. Ignatius Martyr Church in Louisville until he was temporarily removed from ministry in July 2009 after being accused of past sexual abuse. The archdiocese made the removal permanent by March 2010 after determining the claim was valid.
The Weiters’ lawsuit alleges that Schook was not supervised despite the presence of children there. Archdiocesan policy prohibits a priest under investigation for alleged abuse from unsupervised contact
In addition to naming the archdiocese as a defendant, the lawsuit also names Schook; Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz; former St. Therese council member Bruce Ewing; and the Rev. Anthony Olges, pastor of St. Therese.
The lawsuit accuses Olges of requiring Margie Weiter to keep Schook's presence at St. Therese a secret "as a condition of employment."
The Weiters contend in a court document that there’s evidence — which they did not specify — that the archdiocese knew of alleged abusive behavior by Schook, even before the July 2009 accusation. The
document, filed March 22 by their attorney, Mikell Grafton, opposes the archdiocese's pending motion to dismiss the case.
The archdiocese cites the First Amendment and Supreme Court case law as prohibiting courts from intervening in clergy discipline — how it handled Schook — as interfering with freedom of religion.
"Plaintiffs' effort to entwine this court in church policy is expressly prohibited," said the filing by archdiocesan lawyers, including Edward Stopher and Kevin Ford.
The Weiters contend the case has nothing to do with religious doctrine but rather "retaliation against an employee who attempted to seek exposure of … an accused child molester/rapist."
The archdiocese, however, argues that even without the religious-freedom issue, Margie Weiter has no case because she hadn't cited any laws "that relate even tangentially" to a wrongful dismissal. The archdiocese said Margie Weiter was never asked to do anything illegal or to cover up any unreported sexual abuse.
The church didn't confirm or deny the Weiters' claim that it tried to keep Schook's presence at St. Therese a secret.
But it defended its "legitimate interest in maintaining some degree of discretion with regard to unproven accusations of abuse against one of its employees," it said. It has "a legal obligation to prevent its employees
from making potentially defamatory statements."
The archdiocese also said the Weiters exaggerated the seriousness of their claims. For example, the lawsuit contended that Olges trespassed at the Weiters' home by hand-delivering a letter to Gary Weiter at home. The letter removed the Weiters from their role as church bingo volunteers because of the pending suit. The
archdiocese said anyone has the right to knock on someone's door.
Louisville Metro Police have two active investigations of allegations involving Schook, according to spokeswoman Alicia Smiley. She did not give a timetable of when they would be concluded.
The lawsuit contends the presence of Schook at St. Therese revived trauma that Gary Weiter suffered from being sexually abused as a boy decades earlier by another priest residing at the parish.
Gary Weiter was among 243 plaintiffs who settled with the archdiocese in 2003 for $25.7 million over claims of sexual abuse by clergy and others associated with the church.
Settlements for individual plaintiffs were not disclosed, but victims received from $20,000 to $218,801 before attorneys' fees, based on assessments of the severity of the abuse by court-appointed officials.
The Weiters’ lawsuit also names Ewing, a former priest whom it identified as a St. Therese parish council member who allegedly dismissed Gary Weiter's concerns about Schook after a short hearing.
Ewing resigned in February after the lawsuit publicized his council role, which the archdiocese acknowledged violated its rule against sex offenders holding volunteer positions. Ewing is serving a five-year probation term for his 2007 conviction of third-degree rape for having sex with a 15-year-old girl in the 1970s, when he
was a priest.
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