A prisoner scored monetary settlements in four states in a fraud claiming sexual abuse by four Catholic priests. Why “rings true” is no standard of truth or justice.
It was not exactly what Pope Francis had in mind when he asked us to consider the smell of the sheep out on the peripheries of Church life, but he was not addressing the wolves among us when he said it. Jesus had another idea in Matthew 10:16: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.” It’s a very difficult balance to strike, but we have to live in this world as it is. The difficulty in distinguishing the wolves from the sheep was the premise behind my post, “Why the Catholic Abuse Narrative Needs a Fraud Task Force.”
When Shamont Lyle Sapp first detected the scent of sheep, he found it too enticing to pass up. Convicted for a series of bank robberies, Mr. Sapp, then age 51, was serving a lengthy sentence in the dark peripheries of the U.S. Penitentiary in Allenwood, Pennsylvania when the scent first drifted by his cell in 2008.
That was when Sapp filed a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon. Detailing his tragic past, Sapp’s lawsuit claimed that he was a stranded teenage runaway from his Pennsylvania home en route to stay with relatives in Oregon. Then Archdiocese of Portland priest, Father Thomas Laughlin took advantage of his plight to repeatedly sexually abuse him.
Sapp claimed in his highly detailed lawsuit that the priest offered the young runaway a job cutting grass, then sexually abused him at a Portland Catholic church. Then Father Laughlin sodomized him during a five-day motel stay paid for by the priest who then funded the youth’s return trip to Pennsylvania. It was the latest horror story in the Catholic abuse narrative, and one that dismayed Catholics coast to coast.
Mr. Sapp’s story rang true, so it flew. Further inquiry was deemed unnecessary. The detailed claims were reported to civil legal authorities for whom the story also rang true, but Father Tom Laughlin had already been accused and convicted by others with similar tales. Mr. Sapp’s disturbing story added to the weight of a growing millstone around the priest’s neck.
In all public documents in the case, Mr. Sapp found refuge among an ever-expanding list of “John Does” accusing priests from the Archdiocese of Portland to cash in on its bankruptcy proceedings. Sapp’s story was accepted at face value resulting in a cash settlement of $70,000. Inmate Sapp accepted the offer while lawyers, the Archdiocese, and victim advocates all pontificated about how no amount of money could compensate him for the trauma he endured. As for Father Laughlin, the “credible” (aka “settled”) accusations drove another nail into the coffin containing the remains of his priesthood as the Archdiocese sought his dismissal.
WHY ACCUSERS SHOULD BE NAMED
There was only problem with Shamont Lyle Sapp’s story: “It was entirely fabricated,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Peifer who in 2014 prosecuted Sapp for mail fraud and other federal charges for this and three similar frauds carried out against Catholic priests and dioceses in four jurisdictions. While serving another sentence in a medium security state prison in Minersville, PA, Mr. Sapp filed a second lawsuit claiming that a priest of the Diocese of Tucson, Arizona sexually abused him.
Later still, Sapp was serving a sentence in a South Carolina prison from where he sought compensation for claimed sexual abuse by another priest. And before all the above, Sapp filed a 2006 lawsuit claiming that a Spokane, Washington priest had sexually abused him in a similar account.
In all these other claims, Sapp picked from diocesan records the names of senior priests who had never before been accused, destroying not only their good names, but their vocations. Each was removed from ministry under the terms of the U.S. Bishops’ Dallas Charter. They became “Priests in Limbo,” as the National Catholic Register’s Joan Frawley Desmond described priests living, sometimes for years, under a cloud of shame and suspicion for events that could not be disproven after the passage of time.
Each claim against every one of these priests was presumed at face value to be credible and lumped into mediated settlement negotiations. Then the names of the priests and the details of the claims against them were submitted to the Holy See as “credible accusations.” In “Sacrificing Priests on the Altar of Insurance,” a 2015 article in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, authors David. Shaneyfelt and Joseph Maher address this:
“Most clergy cases, like most civil cases in general, settle short of trial. Settlement is a fact of life for many reasons, chief of which is that both sides, after getting a chance to inspect the strengths and weaknesses of each other’s cases, can make a calculated estimate about settlement at a certain dollar figure. And here is where insurance law squeezes the bishop – and may crush Fr. Bob.”
The problem is that for insurance coverage to defend the case or negotiate settlement, the accusation is against the priest but the financial claim is against his bishop and diocese. When, from my prison cell in 1994, I tried to block settlement of the fictitious claims of Thomas Grover and his brothers, I was quickly dropped as a defendant in the lawsuit so that I no longer had standing to object.
In each of his claims, Shamont Lyle Sapp simply did a little research on publicly available bankruptcy proceedings entered into by each of the four beleaguered dioceses he sued. He then attached his name and claims to each case – one by one over several years – aided and abetted by an assurance of anonymity as “John Doe” at every level in the settlement process.
He was also “John Doe” in the news media, and in the fired-up rhetoric of the activists of S.N.A.P., the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests who are ready to dismiss any hard questions as “revictimizing the victims.” I wrote of this injustice, and the naivete of the sheep when confronted by wolves, in Part II of a three-part series, “When Priests Are Falsely Accused: Why Accusers Should Be Named.”
It was ultimately his own greed that unfolded Mr. Sapp’s hand. In 2011, Sapp gained some notoriety when he filed a lawsuit seeking $1 million in damages against comedians Jamie Fox and Tyler Perry, falsely claiming that they stole from him an idea for a film project called “Skank Robbers.” Finally, someone took a hard look at Shamont Lyle Sapp, and it was his undoing.
On June 11, 2014 before U.S. District Court Judge Anna Brown in Portland, Oregon, Sapp entered a plea of guilty for his scam against Catholic dioceses. He was sentenced to familiar territory: 33 months in federal prison and ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $70,000 to the Archdiocese of Portland. At sentencing, U.S. Attorney Amanda Marshall added:
“Fraudulent claims in court… are a serious drain on public and private resources and deserve significant penalties. This is particularly true of fictitious sex abuse cases, which injure the falsely accused and hurt real abuse victims.”
WHERE’S THAT SPOTLIGHT TEAM?
I did not come across this story in The New York Times or The Boston Globe or in any of the media venues that have gained notoriety from exposing scandal in the Catholic Church, taking every claim at face value. Instead, this entire account was researched and written by Mark Wilson, an editor for Prison Legal News (“Prisoner Admits to Scheme to Defraud Catholic Church, Gets 33 More Months in Prison,” November 2015). Mark Wilson is to be commended for doing what the mainstream media has failed to do in the entire Catholic abuse narrative. He explored the hard questions when developing a story.
The account above is by no means unique. In “Prelude to the Year of Mercy,” Father George David Byers wrote briefly of claims against Father John Geoghan, labeled “worst abuser” by much of the media and the trigger for the 2002 emergence of the story of scandal and Catholic priests.
Father John Geoghan was murdered in prison at the hands of Joseph Druce, a deranged inmate who claimed he was protecting children by killing the priest. Ironically, some of Geoghan’s most notorious accusers spent time in the same prison in which the priest was later murdered.
Five years earlier, on April 7, 1998, Sean Murphy, age 35, and his mother, Sylvia, 57, sent a letter to the Archdiocese of Boston demanding $850,000 to avoid a lawsuit over claims that Father Geoghan had sexually abused both Sean and his younger brother. The claims were bolstered by ongoing rumors about Geoghan. To support the claims, Sean’s mother forged school records placing her and her sons in Saugus, Massachusetts, where Father Geoghan was assigned in the 1980s.
Within days of the Murphy claim, Byron Worth, 41, concocted a similar claim from his home in Ashburnham, MA, 100 miles away. His claim also alleged sexual abuse by Father Geoghan in the same community, thus corroborating the Murphy’s claim and $850,000 settlement demand.
JOHN DOE IN THE NEWS
It’s unclear what caused civil authorities in Massachusetts to investigate these claims, but the flood of accusations and lawyer-driven demands for settlement was just then building. State police somehow learned that Sean Murphy and Byron Worth were inmates together at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Shirley, MA, when they met and concocted their scam. Neither of them had ever lived in the same town where Father Geoghan was assigned. Sean and his mother, Sylvia, and Byron Worth were indicted on fraud and conspiracy charges.
Sylvia Murphy, likely dragged into this scam by her convict son, died before facing trial in the case. The younger Murphy brother was never charged. On November 16, 2001, just two months after 9/11, Sean and Byron entered guilty pleas, and were each sentenced to less than two years in prison. After serving that sentence, Sean Murphy was indicted and convicted again, this time for a fraud involving the sale of stolen Super Bowl memorabilia.
The Boston Globe and other local newspapers relegated the Murphy scam to the far back pages, never once mentioning that the priest being falsely accused in the scam was the notorious Father John Geoghan, lest others among his 130 accusers were called into question. When two other inmates at MCI-Shirley accused another Boston priest, a local lawyer wrote to me:
“It is no coincidence that these men share the same prison. They also share the same contingency lawyer. I have some contacts in the [Massachusetts] prison system having been a lawyer for some time, and it has been made known to me that this is a current and popular scam.”
On July 14, 2001, The Boston Globe carried a story quoting a local Boston contingency lawyer: “the hearsay and speculation” among lawyers and their clients is that “the Catholic Church settled their cases for an average of $500,000 each since the 1960s.” It was a dangled lure that would have many takers, and a Pulitzer Prize for The Boston Globe Spotlight Team that mined the results.
These are just the scams that had the rarest of outcomes. They were unmasked, and in each, “John Doe” was exposed as one of the wolves. In reality, no one really investigates any sexual abuse claimant named “John Doe,” certainly no one in the news media or on the left side of the political issue of victim rights. Not when the accused is a Catholic priest anyway. I often wondered why this is so, and found my answer in a segment of No Crueler Tyrannies by Dorothy Rabinowitz:
“In the late 1980s, as today, there was a school of advanced political opinion of the view that to take up for those falsely accused of sex abuse charges was to undermine the battle against child abuse; it was to betray children and all other victims of sexual predators. To succeed in reversing the convictions in such cases was to send a discouraging message to the victims and to encourage predators. Where advanced reasoning of this sort prevailed, the facts of a case were simply irrelevant.” (p. 18)
On January 25, 2003, The Boston Globe carried a report by Matt Carroll and Walter Robinson. It was about a Springfield, Massachusetts, couple arrested and charged with extortion for a blackmail operation against a Boston priest. At the time, I wrote to both reporters to inform them that I had first-hand knowledge that the man accused in that blackmail attempt had brought prior claims that were financially settled involving a priest of my diocese. Neither reporter ever responded. Today, they are two of the reporters featured in the film, “Spotlight.”
Thus, another type of predator is enabled, and left to roam among the sheep undetected. There are other such accounts – too many to recount here – but they all lend weight to the foreboding of Matthew 10:16: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.”
You will not read this story, or anything like it, anywhere in the mainstream news. It’s up to us to make it known. Please share this, post it, email it, and recommend it to others. Otherwise, the only story that’s left is the one told by the media heroes of the left for whom any question about the legitimacy of a claim of victimhood is, by its very existence, a sacrilege.