A decade of disasters and a surge in fraud led the Justice Department to form the Disaster Fraud Task Force, but who investigates fraud against Catholic priests?
“‘Well, if you want to accuse a priest of something, I can have $50-grand in your account by the end of the year – a $100,000 settlement split fifty-fifty.’ Randy was shaking with enthusiasm as he stood at my door. He said he told the lawyer that he lives in a cellblock with a Catholic priest who has been accused. ‘Even better!’ the lawyer reportedly said. ‘Tell him where you grew up and see if he can get you a name.’ ” (“Let’s Play ‘Name That Priest,’ “ Sancte Pater, July 26, 2011).
It described a scene that could have come right out of a John Grisham novel. In the middle of the blistering hot New England summer of 2011, the terrific blog, Sancte Pater, published an excerpt of a TSW post I wrote and gave the segment a name of its own. “Let’s Play ‘Name That Priest’ ” was posted on Sancte Pater on July 26. 2011. It wasn’t long – just a few paragraphs – but readers said it awoke their fury, like being doused with ice water on the hottest summer day. It’s a good context for this post about fraud, so have a look at those few paragraphs at Sancte Pater.
SNAP spokespersons and the contingency lawyers who have funded them may minimize or deny the existence of fraud in the Catholic sex abuse story, but it’s a denial of human nature. David Pierre’s media watchdog site, The Media Report has been especially vigilant about exposing some of the fraud. The evidence is all around us, and not only in the narrative of our own millstone of Catholic scandal. Fraud is by no means new or surprising in the field of personal injury law.
After the disastrous 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, damage and loss settlements by British Petroleum (BP) have swelled to $8.5 billion. In the wake of those settlements, however, federal prosecutors have thus far charged 125 people across the United States with defrauding the BP fund. And they are currently examining over 4,000 other suspicious claims referred to the Justice Department for further investigation.
Some of the convictions and guilty pleas in the BP case have involved settlements of $1 million or more. Joseph Harvey and Anja Karin Kannell of Florida, for example, were sentenced in September 2012 to more than 13 years in prison for attempts to defraud the BP fund by making claims using 34 assumed identities. A Massachusetts man will soon be sentenced after pleading guilty to wire fraud. He falsely claimed that he owned four shrimping vessels, was put out of work by the spill, and is on his deathbed due to the stress of losing his business which never existed. Many of the smaller fraud attempts included people claiming to have been hotel and restaurant workers who lost income when the spill ruined the 2010 tourist season.
No one involved in the BP fraud investigation is claiming that all the con artists are caught. For everyone prosecuted, there could be a dozen others who successfully cashed in on a scam. The Disaster Fraud Task Force, an arm of the Justice Department, was established after a similar spate of fraudulent claims following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Similar fraud and shocking fraud attempts were seen in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the New York World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A spate of false claims also followed compensation of Vietnam veterans injured by the use of Agent Orange.
The prosecution of false claims in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill should catch the eye of Catholics, however, because of a glaring similarity. The daily reports of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, and the resultant barrage of claims of negligence and complicity in the damages put British Petroleum on the moral defensive. Just as in the Catholic abuse story, few wanted to go on record in defense of an institution that allowed such a disaster to happen. It was precisely under the cover of that moral outrage that false claimants by the hundreds, or even thousands, got away with millions in BP settlements, and are only now being investigated and prosecuted.
ABUSE OF THE ABUSE CRISIS
But after more than a decade of mediated settlements approaching $3 billion related to an onslaught of very old claims of abuse by Catholic priests in the United States alone, there seems no interest whatsoever among either Church or civil authorities in detecting, investigating, and prosecuting false claims against priests despite overwhelming evidence that false claimants have defrauded the Church.
I wrote of some of that evidence eight years ago in an article for Catalyst, the Catholic League Journal, entitled “Sex Abuse and Signs of Fraud” (November 2005). I profiled the story of a Boston area Catholic family, Sean Murphy, then age 37, his mother, Sylvia, and his younger brother. The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, in a rare gesture of questioning an account put forward by claimed victims of sexual abuse, began investigating the Murphys after they demanded $850,000 from the Archdiocese of Boston.
That amount was to be their compensation for abuse they claimed to have suffered at the hands of Father John Geoghan, a priest accused in high profile news stories in Boston. Sean Murphy’s elderly mother became part of the investigation when she forged school records in an attempt to place her two sons in one of the communities where Father Geoghan once served decades earlier. Shortly after the Murphy claim was filed, but not made public, 41-year-old Byron Worth filed a claim from the opposite side of the state with virtually identical details of abuse.
In 2001, Sean Murphy, his mother Sylvia, and Byron Worth were indicted by a Massachusetts grand jury for conspiracy, larceny, and soliciting others to commit larceny. An investigation revealed that a year or so before filing their claims, Sean Murphy and Byron Worth had been inmates at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Shirley, MA where they first met and concocted their scam.
Upon release from prison, they relocated 100 miles apart from each other to give the appearance of independently corroborating their respective claims. They were both sent back to prison for just shy of two more years for the scam. After serving that brief sentence, Sean Murphy was convicted again, this time for a scam involving stolen Super Bowl memorabilia.
The Murphy’s fraud attempt was brought at the height of news media coverage of the many claims for civil damages alleging abuse by Father John Geoghan. Ironically, Geoghan was eventually sentenced to, and then murdered in, the very same prison where Sean Murphy and Byron Worth laid out their plans for the scam and then chose John Geoghan as their target.
The Geoghan case was the very foundation upon which the Catholic Scandal of 2002 was built, and the United States Bishops’ Dallas Charter, and its zero tolerance measures, were enacted. The news media and many secular and Catholic writers committed a fraud of their own by presenting without challenge a view that the Geoghan case was the norm, a clear and typical example of the narrative of abuse and cover-up that dominated media reports of the Catholic scandal for a decade. This was another example of the “Availability Bias” I described last week in “Strike the Shepherd! Behind the Plot to Smear the Pope.”
I wrote of other details in the troubling Father Geoghan case in a 2011 post entitled “SNAP Judgments Part II: Ground Zero of the Catholic Scandal.” It was very much unlike anything else that the Boston area news media had published to date on this topic. It raised a point about fraud that is very widely overlooked: A claim for damages resulting from sexual abuse can be fraudulent even though the claim of abuse itself can be true.
“Court TV” covered John Geoghan’s criminal trial live. Like all criminal trials on Court TV then, prisoners were riveted to their TV screens. One after another during the Geoghan trial, a steady stream of prisoners carne to my cell door to register their outrage. Prisoners are always outraged at sexual abuse, but this time their outrage was not aimed at Geoghan, but at his accuser who in their view was a victim of more than Geoghan’s abuse. He was a victim also of his own greed.
In the only case to result in a criminal trial and testimony under oath in the entire nebulous story of Father John Geoghan, the 20-something year old accuser testified on camera – his identity and face obscured – that a dozen years earlier Geoghan approached him in a community swimming pool. Under the guise of helping the youth climb out of the pool, Geoghan allegedly squeezed his buttocks. This, the witness claimed in his simultaneous civil lawsuit, caused him to suffer a dozen years of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) worthy of six figures in compensatory and punitive damages.
Did the abuse occur? I had and have no reason whatsoever to doubt that young man was telling the truth. Did the damages occur?
Without exception, the prisoners who heard this testimony laughed at the claim, were outraged that it was brought with a straight face, and then were enthralled with the fact that it resulted not only in a conviction and nine-year death sentence for the elderly priest, but a six-figure settlement from the Archdiocese of Boston. The settlement dangled a lure that would have many takers. In the end, both before and after his death at the hands of another inmate in a Massachusetts prison, Geoghan had some 130 accusers all seeking mediated settlements with no offers of proof.
Without doubt, many or most of these claims against Father John Geoghan were true, and absolutely destructive. However, I defy anyone to explain to me how justice was served in that case while the abuse described in “Divine Mercy and the Doors of My Prisons,” a recent guest post at Holy Souls Hermitage, has stayed off everyone’s radar screen for over two decades.
BOGUS CHARGES AGAINST PRIESTS ABOUND
In the March, 2012 issue of Catalyst, Ave Maria University Law professor Father Michael Orsi wrote a compelling article entitled “Bogus Charges Against Priests Abound.” It was a summary of the well-researched book by The Media Report’s David F. Pierre that we profiled here on These Stone Walls in “A Book Every Priest Should Read: Catholic Priests Falsely Accused.” Father Orsi described my own case as an example of “priests found guilty due to false or dubious claims.” I appreciated that, but what was really behind his interest in affairs of my own Diocese was how very much the ripple effect from notorious claims in Boston spilled over into the neighboring Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire, and then spread throughout the U.S.
Ryan A. MacDonald wrote of some of the issues of justice behind the scenes of my own charges in a brief post entitled “A Touch of Deja Vu” that was another dousing with ice water for some. How the exchange of money became so central in my case and others like it was an important and alarming part of David Pierre’s book. The following paragraph is a challenge to those who still believe that due process is justly afforded to priests:
“In 2002, the Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire faced accusations of abuse from 62 individuals. Rather than spending the resources and the time looking into the merits of the cases, ‘Diocese officials did not even ask for specifics such as dates and specific allegations for the claims’ the New Hampshire Union Leader reported. ‘Some victims made claims in the past month, and because of the timing of negotiations gained closure in just a matter of days,’ reported the Nashua Telegraph. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ a pleased, and much richer, plaintiff attorney admitted.” (Catholic Priests Falsely Accused, p. 80)
In “The Truth About Falsely Accused Priests,” an interview with Catholic World Report, David F. Pierre laid out the foundations for how fraud has flourished in the Catholic abuse narrative. Father George David Byers has also masterfully unmasked such fraud in his recent analysis of The National Catholic Risk Retention Group.
It would be a step in the direction of justice for priests if this post and these accounts of fraud were among the information now being presented to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
As Ryan MacDonald concluded so succinctly in more than one analysis of the Catholic scandal, “Greed ranks right up there with lust among the Seven Deadly Sins.”