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Jury awards $4.2 million in sex abuse case against Mormon Church

Posted on Nov 22, 2005

Jury awards $4.2 million in sex abuse case against Mormon Church 11/22/2005 Associated Press Two college-age sisters have been awarded $4.2 million in a lawsuit against the Mormon Church, a judgment prompted partly by the way a bishop dealt with sexual abuse committed by their stepfather while they were children. Jessica Cavalieri, 24, and her younger sister, Ashley Cavalieri, were abused at their home in suburban Federal Way during the 1990s. The decision Friday by a King County Superior Court jury could be a landmark in sexual abuse litigation against religious institutions in Washington state, lawyers said. It's the first sex abuse verdict by a jury in a lawsuit against a church in the state and could affect settlements in other abuse cases, including those against the Roman Catholic Church, said Timothy D. Kosnoff, a lawyer for the Cavalieris. "The size of the verdict is particularly newsworthy. I think the jury is making a statement," Kosnoff said. James S. Rogers, a lawyer who has represented people claiming they were abused by Catholic priests, agreed. The Mormon Church would "aggressively pursue an appeal," said Gordon Conger, a spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Settlements in several abuse cases involving Catholic priests have averaged less than $1 million per victim. The Boston Archdiocese reached an $85 million settlement with 552 victims in 2003, the diocese of Orange, Calif., settled 90 abuse claims for $100 million last year and the Archdiocese of Seattle has settled about 100 cases for an average of about $100,000. The sisters, both enrolled in college, told The Seattle Times on Monday they feel vindicated by the verdict but remain troubled by the abuse. Jessica Cavalieri said she hoped the case would help the church deal better with such situations. "They don't know how to handle abuse victims and pedophiles," she said. "They're just completely naive." The jury found the church liable for intentional misconduct and negligence and responsible for damages of at least $2.5 million. The church also must pay another $1.7 million for damages assessed to the girls' stepfather, Peter N. Taylor, who was a Mormon priest when the girls were children. Taylor was sentenced to four years and three months in prison after he pleaded guilty to child molesting in 2001. One juror, Nikki Easterbrooks, said the issue boiled down to whether church officials should be allowed to treat an abuse complaint as a confidential confession or be required to report it to civil authorities. "I think abuse happens way more frequently than we think, and it gets handled internally," Easterbrooks said. Conger said he was shocked that the church was held liable for damages. He said the girls were molested at home and denied that Taylor used his church position to take advantage of his stepdaughters. Jessica Cavalieri said she told her congregational leader, Bishop Bruce Hatch, in 1994 that Taylor had been abusing her since she was 7. Hatch invited Jessica and her mother to speak with him, Kosnoff said, telling her mother the meeting was about tension between daughter and stepfather. When Jessica went in alone first, Kosnoff said, Hatch told her to be glad she had not told civil authorities, who would try to destroy her family. Hatch then met with the mother and Taylor, but told the mother only that her daughter had spoken of tension in the family and then encouraged them to work out problems through worship, Kosnoff said. Cavalieri said she was unaware that the bishop had not informed her mother of the abuse and wound up feeling ashamed and too scared to tell anyone else, even when Taylor began abusing her younger sister, according to court documents. In 1998 the older sister wrote a friend about the abuse in an e-mail message which the friend forwarded to her own parents, who then alerted Stan Wade, Hatch's successor as bishop. Wade summoned the family for an interview, Taylor confessed and church officials said civil authorities would be notified, Kosnoff said. After learning Taylor had abused the younger sister as well, the mother called authorities and learned neither church leaders nor a Mormon social service therapist who discussed the abuse with Jessica Cavalieri had reported the abuse of the older sister, the sisters' lawyer said. Wade and other church officials refused to cooperate with a police investigation, Kosnoff added. A church lawyer, Von G. Keetch, disputed Kosnoff's account, noting that Hatch testified that he never had any confirmation of abuse. He also cited testimony by one of the older sister's friends who said Jessica told her she initially lied to the bishop by denying she had been abused. "Our position was Bishop Hatch did not know." Keetch said.

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