Appeals court says Phoenix Diocese can’t duck sex abuse lawsuit
A civil lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix alleging the church helped in covering up abuse is being allowed to go forward after a state appellate court reversed a dismissal by a trial court judge.
The lawsuit, which was filed in 2020 by an unnamed man identified only as John ND Doe, was one of several lawsuits brought following legislation that extended the statue of limitations on child sexual abuse and opened a temporary two-year window for civil suits that were otherwise time-barred.
In a lawsuit against the diocese for how it handled abuse allegations against Joseph J. Henn, a priest who was later defrocked, a trial judge sided with the church’s argument for dismissal, stating that the group and victim bringing the case forward had not sufficiently pleaded their allegations during the window.
But the Arizona Court of Appeals found the judge was wrong and reversed the decision.
At the heart of the case is Henn, a priest at St. Mark Parish in Phoenix who has since died. Henn pleaded guilty in 2021 to six counts of sexual conduct with a minor and one count of attempt to commit molestation of a child, class 2 and class 3 felonies.
Henn was the 19th priest accused of sexual crimes in Phoenix during the early 2000s, and he was indicted in 2003 on 13 counts of child molestation. Henn fled to Rome after the allegations surfaced, and he dodged authorities for years, avoiding extradition until 2019, when he was finally arrested by Italian authorities when requesting assistance under a false name.
Upon returning to Phoenix, Henn took a plea deal. A document from the court proceedings obtained by the Arizona Mirror shows just how much the church knew about his crimes and what Henn had done.
The Diocese of Phoenix did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
Henn was a member of the Society of the Divine Savior, also known as the Salvatorians. The lawsuit that the Court of Appeals allowed to go forward also names the Salvatorians as being responsible for covering up Henn’s crimes.
In the late 1970s, Henn was a young man who enjoyed sports and participating in them with the children, making him more “trusted” to some of the families, according to a sentencing memorandum filed in August 2021 in Henn’s criminal case.
The mother of two of the victims told prosecutors that “they trusted Catholic priests implicitly because they believed that priests were a representation of Jesus Christ himself.”
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In 1983, one of Henn’s supervisors received a report that Henn had engaged in a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old boy. He also learned that a different boy had also committed suicide due to Henn’s sexual abuse. After this, Henn was transferred from Phoenix to Sacramento, where he worked at an all-girls school.
Later that year, Henn requested a transfer, but it was denied because the leader of the congregation he had sought to transfer to had been made aware of the “compelling reasons for [Henn’s] move from Phoenix to California.”
A psychological evaluation of Henn mentions him having a “physical genital relationship” with a “young man of the parish” and that Henn had “difficulty in telling the truth.”
“Real need to be loved and to love, but doesn’t know how to do this on peer level,” the evaluation says, adding that he “therefore seeks teenagers.”
Henn was treated and evaluated three times by the Salvatorians for his attraction to teen boys, according to court documents. One evaluation concluded that he had a “compulsive sexual disorder” and that he fit a pattern of an ephebophile, a person attracted to adolescents.
The sentencing memorandum from Henn’s criminal case outlines a multitude of accusations by several unnamed victims who said they were abused by Henn. Some said that Henn molested them during camping trips, others during showers after swims and one even after preparing for an upcoming funeral. The abuse happened in multiple states, including Arizona, California and Wisconsin.
“When and where Father Henn might act inappropriately in the future cannot be predicted,” another evaluation of Henn done by the Salvatorians concluded. “This includes the possibility of his acting inappropriately from a sexual standpoint.”
The case against the Diocese of Phoenix and the Salvatorians can now move forward, though they can still appeal the case to the Arizona Supreme Court, something the attorneys representing Doe hope the church decides to not do.
“They’ve been playing these games and doing this stuff for three years,” attorney Josh Peck said about the church’s multiple motions to dismiss and a possible appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court. “You know why you’re getting sued: You let these guys get away with this for so long.”
Peck’s client is one of the victims whose testimony was used to bring charges against Henn for his criminal case. To Peck and one of his partners on the case, Bob Pastor, the fact that the diocese is fighting so hard on this particular case is telling.
“What is disturbing and so troubling is that Bishop John Dolan and the Diocese of Phoenix will spend dollar after dollar after dollar from keeping survivors like (John) ND Doe from getting the justice they deserve,” Pastor said.
The diocese has kept an updated list on its website since 2012 of credibly accused priests and have created its own reporting system for abuse. The diocese also released a statement on Henn’s arrest in 2019, urging victims to come forward and contact its Office of Child and Youth Protection.
But the diocese is also fighting cases in which it is accused of shuffling priests like Henn from parish to parish after allegations were raised, all without acknowledging responsibility, Pastor said.
“This isn’t an isolated incident with Father Henn,” Pastor said. “It’s the same pattern, it’s the same issue…they gave the benefit of the doubt to these priests.”
Henn’s case isn’t the only in which the church is fighting against allegations it enabled crimes against children. Fr. Paul LeBrun, a priest and member of the religious order that runs Notre Dame, was transferred from Indiana to Arizona, where he soon began sexually abusing a 12-year-old boy. LeBrun was convicted on 6 counts of child molestation and sentenced to 111 years in prison. The church is fighting a similar civil lawsuit by a victim in that case, Pastor said.
After the Arizona allegations surfaced, similar allegations surfaced from LeBrun in Indiana.
“The negligence lies in (the diocese’) failure to protect the parishioners and their families from abusers like Henn,” Peck said.
With a favorable appellate ruling, Peck said he hopes to move on to discovery and learn more about how the church attempted to hide and move Henn from the public.
“The only reason (the case) moves forward is because of the survivors,” Peck said. “The courage that that takes, we cannot say enough about this survivor’s courage and the other survivors we work with.”
Pastor reiterated Peck’s point, but also singled out the Diocese, saying that their defense of people like Henn was “disgusting” and said that using parishioners money to defend sexual abusers should give people pause.
“When is Bishop Dolan and when is the Catholic church really going to take responsibility for the clergy sexual abuse crisis?” Pastor said.