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When the Rev. Joseph D. Ross was assigned to minister at St. Cronan Church, the other priest there already knew his secret.

He heard the pastor coming to help him in 1991 had just returned from the St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., a mental health treatment center for Catholic clergy, according to court filings.

The priest recognized that in all likelihood this was code for Ross having just undergone therapy for a sexual attraction to children. Although the priest worried about the well-being of the parishioners, according to court filings, the Archdiocese of St. Louis assured him that Ross was fit to return to ministry.

Twenty years later, a young woman who attended St. Cronan between 1997 and 2001 would claim she was abused by Ross when she was only 5 or 6 years old, filing a civil lawsuit against the priest and the archdiocese. The alleged victim and perpetrator are set to finally have their day in court when a trial begins next month at the Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

The allegations, while disturbing, are not unheard of in a Roman Catholic Church that has been rocked by the priest abuse scandal for more than a decade. In the St. Louis archdiocese, allegations have been lobbed against numerous priests in recent years, including some who have been convicted of criminal sex abuse.

But the civil suit against Ross stands apart.

In a state that is regarded as one of the most hostile in the nation to priest abuse litigation, the Ross case is poised to become only the second child sexual abuse case against the St. Louis archdiocese to make it to trial. And it would be the first since the priest abuse scandal erupted nationwide in 2002.

Most other lawsuits against the archdiocese have either been settled or dismissed — roughly 60 since 2002. The St. Louis archdiocese has spent more than $10 million on costs related to sexual abuse since 2004, according to its 2013 annual report.

Rebecca Randles, an attorney at Randles, Mata & Brown in Kansas City, said most plaintiffs choose to settle, typically for small amounts.

“There’s nothing therapeutic about the litigation process,” Randles said.

In 1999, Randles became the first attorney to successfully bring a civil suit to trial against the Archdiocese of St. Louis. In that case, a jury awarded $1.2 million to Henry Bachmann, who claimed the Rev. James Gummersbach abused him at Church of the Immaculate Conception when he was 13 years old.

Now, the Ross case is stubbornly moving forward with an ambitious legal strategy that will attempt to show that the archdiocese ignored a pattern of abuse. It will point to the fact that even before the St. Cronan assignment, Ross had pleaded guilty in 1988 to molesting an 11-year-old boy in University City.

More broadly, lawyers in the case will likely cite as evidence hundreds of pages of church documents on pedophile priests, some of which have been obtained by the Post-Dispatch.

In a statement, Gabe Jones, spokesman for the archdiocese, said that since 2002, the archdiocese has “enacted the policy of zero tolerance for clergy sexual abuse of minors.”

“Since that time there have been no incidents of sexual abuse of minors involving the more than 300 archdiocesan priests in St. Louis,” Jones said. “As witnessed by this absence of substantiated allegations, we have made tremendous progress in preventing clergy child sexual abuse.”

The battle lines in the lawsuit were drawn in December by Judge Robert H. Dierker, who has presided over portions of the case. Judge Jimmie M. Edwards will handle the trial.

In a court order, Dierker said that the plaintiff in the case, known only as Jane Doe, is free to draw on other abuse cases in an attempt to show that the archdiocese has previously turned a blind eye, reassigning priests who were once treated for pedophilia or sexual misconduct.

It’s a directive that could reopen old wounds for the archdiocese. Already, the case has forced the archdiocese to release an unprecedented amount of information on priest abuse allegations.

But the judge also set a high bar for success.

“The burden on plaintiff is to establish that the ecclesiastical supervisor knew that harm was certain or substantially certain to result from lack of oversight of a wrongdoer and disregarded the known risk,” Dierker wrote.

In other words, it’s not enough to show that leaders of the archdiocese knowingly reassigned problem priests such as Ross. Rather, they need to have done so knowing that their decision would almost certainly lead to further sexual abuse.

It’s a legal standard that has toppled previous civil cases. And it explains why Missouri is one of the most challenging states in the country for those looking to try priests in child sexual abuse cases.

AN UPHILL BATTLE

Unlike other states, Missouri has held that in many circumstances, holding the Roman Catholic Church accountable for priestly sexual abuse violates the First Amendment, or the separation of church and state. Other cases are dismissed on statute-of-limitations grounds.

“There are so many barriers in the state of Missouri that lawyers rationally don’t take cases unless there’s a real reason,” said Marci Hamilton, a leading church and state scholar who teaches at Yeshiva University in New York. “The hurdles are high.”

The Missouri Supreme Court introduced those First Amendment obstacles in a 1997 lawsuit involving the Rev. Michael Brewer of the diocese of Kansas City. In that case, Michael Gibson said Brewer fondled him on a sleepover.

The high court dismissed all counts.

In its view, “questions of hiring, ordaining, and retaining clergy ... necessarily involve interpretation of religious doctrine, policy, and administration. Such excessive entanglement between church and state has the effect of inhibiting religion, in violation of the First Amendment.”

That legal interpretation has been widely criticized, said Jeff Dion, director of the National Crime Victim Bar Association in Washington.

“The First Amendment doesn’t give religious groups a get-out-of-jail-free card when they commit acts that lead to harm of another person,” Dion said.

The Missouri ruling, however, did leave a small opening, freeing future plaintiffs to go after a church for intentional failure to supervise clergy.

Hamilton says that in practical terms this means plaintiff lawyers in Missouri must establish that a diocese assigned a priest to a parish with the knowledge that he would harm a child.

“That’s why it’s virtually impossible to win these cases,” Hamilton said.

Except for Wisconsin and Utah, where it is also difficult to prove church sex abuse cases, laws in the rest of the country are less severe with regard to holding religious institutions liable. Lawyers only need to show that the religious institution acted negligently — that is, that the church was not as careful as it should have been.

Church child sexual abuse cases face other obstacles in Missouri, such as the fact that a church can only be held liable when the abuse happens on church grounds.

Missouri’s statute of limitations, meanwhile, stipulates that a victim must file a civil claim within five years of the incident. A minor has five years from the date he or she turns 21, though there are some exceptions in the case of repressed memory. Still, according to Randles, a judge can always determine that a particular victim should have recognized sexual abuse damaged them and filed a lawsuit promptly.

Those issues, coupled with the First Amendment limitations in Missouri, close doors for victims, Hamilton said.

“It creates a double deterrent for not filing in the first place,” she said.

FROM PARISH TO PARISH

Ken Chackes, the lead attorney in the Ross case, would not discuss his legal strategy as he attempts to take the case forward. But others say the suit has key facts on its side.

For starters, the alleged abuse took place on church property. The plaintiff, Jane Doe, also appears to satisfy statute-of-limitations concerns.

But more significantly, Ross represents one of the more extreme cases of abuse in the archdiocese. Not only was he convicted of criminal abuse, but he was later reassigned by the archdiocese. Moreover, he would go on to become the first priest in the archdiocese to be defrocked by the Vatican for abuse.

Ross was first accused in 1986 of grabbing and kissing a young boy during confession at Christ the King Church in University City.

The boy would later tell authorities that Ross had rubbed his backside and kissed him seven times. According to the boy, Ross told him, “Father loves you.” He also said Ross later tried to pull him onto his lap.

Along with pleading guilty to the charges, Ross agreed to serve two years on probation. County prosecutors at the time expected the conditions of Ross’ probation to include resigning from the archdiocese and seeking treatment, according to University City police records.

The archdiocese claims the only condition of Ross’ probation was that he continue therapy.

Just three years after pleading guilty to the incident at Christ the King and undergoing treatment, the archdiocese placed Ross at St. Cronan, where he allegedly claimed yet another victim — the unnamed woman at the heart of the approaching trial.

According to the civil lawsuit, Ross would see the young girl on most Sundays when she attended St. Cronan with her family. Her mother worked with the church choir. Ross took advantage of the time she spent at the parish, repeatedly touching and penetrating her in various rooms of the church, according to the civil lawsuit.

During their time together, according to the civil lawsuit, he told her that “her parents did not ‘discipline’ her properly, and that by complying with the abuse, she was doing what God intended for her. He further told her that he ‘liked boys more than girls,’ and that she was helping him to overcome that issue.”

Not until 2002, under pressure to employ stricter rules about substantiated allegations of sexual abuse, did the archdiocese finally remove Ross from St. Cronan.

Criminal charges stemming from the incident were filed against Ross in 2008, but they were dropped in 2010.

Experts say that even at the time of Ross’ 1986 crimes at Christ the King Church, the archdiocese should have been well aware that reassigning him elsewhere was inappropriate.

Tom Doyle, a priest and canon lawyer, says church officials across the country in that era failed to follow their own rule. Church law, or canon law, has for decades stipulated that any priest who has had sexual contact with a minor should be punished and could potentially be defrocked.

“What they have learned through great pain and shame is that they can no longer get away with it,” Doyle said. “Because people are no longer giving them the deference they used to get.”

But for the Ross case to prevail, plaintiff attorneys likely must do more than merely demonstrate that the archdiocese acted negligently in reassigning the priest. They must, as Judge Dierker stated, show that leaders “knew that harm was certain or substantially certain to result.”

And for that, the case will seek to establish a pattern of similar decisions in other abuse cases.

PARALLEL CASES

Dierker has told plaintiff lawyers in the Ross case they are free to bring forward as evidence instances where the church “knowingly permitted unsupervised contact between children and clergy known by the archdiocese to present a threat to those children.”

They could also point to “instances paralleling the circumstances in this case, in which a clergyman who had been subjected to psychological or psychiatric treatment had reoffended after such treatment.”

Several priest abuse cases in the St. Louis archdiocese could come into play as attorneys seek to draw those connections.

Some details of prior priest abuse cases have already come to light through years of litigation and news reports. But other details are buried in archdiocesan records obtained by the Post-Dispatch that have never been reported.

The church documents provide a rare glimpse inside the archdiocese as leaders struggled over what to do with abusive priests. The records include exchanges between therapists and archdiocesan leaders over when it might be appropriate to return abusive priests to service. And in some cases they include agonized confessions by the accused.

Among the more notorious is the case of the Rev. Michael S. McGrath, the most-sued priest in the archdiocese who allegedly sexually abused children while teaching them how to drive.

According to the documents, he was in therapy from 1983 to 1988. Yet in 1990, he was appointed associate pastor at St. Mary’s Parish in Bridgeton. McGrath also began teaching at Bishop DuBourg High School during this period.

In a 1994 letter that appears to be directed to an alleged victim, a church official justified that decision, writing that “based on the recommendation of the professionals with whom Fr. McGrath worked during these months, he has been returned to a limited form of ministry.”

In another case, the documents include a 1985 letter from a despondent mother who is concerned that the Rev. Robert J. Yim was back in ministry five years after the mother claimed that the priest abused one of her sons.

In a letter to then-Archbishop John L. May, the mother said she had heard that Yim might have been in contact with handicapped children. “For the sake of those children who may not be able to speak for themselves, we cannot remain silent any longer,” the mother wrote.

May responded by noting that Yim was stationed in a parish with a “very strict pastor,” according to church documents.

The following month, the archdiocese indicated they would pay for Yim to undergo treatment, apparently for the second time, according to church documents. In 1989, a new allegation would emerge against Yim, prompting him to write a letter to May apologizing for his actions.

“As I read your letter, a great sadness and regret overcame me as I realize ever more sharply the great pain that I have brought into other people’s lives by my illness and a sexual addiction that was dangerously out-of-control,” Yim wrote.

Yim was removed from day-to-day parish ministry the next year.

IN CONTEXT

But the documents also include examples that suggest that archdiocesan leaders were making an effort to lean on the expertise of therapists in how to handle abusive priests.

Such examples could support a common legal defense in priest abuse cases that argues that church officials should be judged in the context of the era in which abuse cases occurred.

Today, experts agree that pedophiles are not treatable and should never be placed in contact with children. But that wasn’t the case decades ago, when therapy seemed like a viable option.

That thinking comes across in a letter May wrote to one of Yim’s victims.

“Every effort was made to prepare him well to function as a priest, and we were given every assurance that he was doing so. When we learned of his problem, we immediately acted and gave him the necessary therapy,” May wrote. “I believe the problem and the responsibility was his.”

That argument, however, doesn’t fly with some experts, who say that by the ’90s, if not earlier, church officials should have been clear on the risks.

“You don’t want an alcoholic working in a bar, and you don’t want a pedophile working in a church,” said Gary Schoener, a speaker and consultant on sexual abuse. “I think it’s disingenuous to say that we didn’t know that.”

In another case, May writes to the Rev. Donald J. “Duck” Straub, who had signed a confession in 1978 admitting to abusing several boys.

In May’s 1989 letter to Straub — who by that time had undergone chemical castration and other therapy — May argues against reassigning him.

“I believe that might very well involve the law and you could be in very serious trouble,” May wrote. “I believe that I have an obligation to protect you and to protect the church.

“Also I obviously have serious obligations to these families and to their children.”

But within months, May would seem to contradict that conclusion. In the summer of 1990, Straub was assigned to a parish in Dodge City, Kan., though May reinstated his suspension in January 1991, after some “strange behavior,” unrelated to sexual abuse, was reported.

‘DOGGED REFUSAL’

The Ross case is scheduled to go to trial July 7. But already — as it seeks to tie together other priest abuse cases — the case has captured more attention than most any other priest abuse lawsuit filed in St. Louis.

Throughout the discovery process, plaintiff attorneys and the archdiocese have battled over how much information the church must disclose about prior cases.

At one point, Judge Dierker chided the archdiocese for its “dogged refusal” to comply with the court’s orders and its “trend toward secret litigation” in what is supposed to be an open justice system.

Ultimately, it took a Missouri Supreme Court ruling for the archdiocese to hand over the names of all priests accused of abuse.

The names of the priests are sealed. But documents made public as part of the case show a matrix of 240 complaints against 115 priests and other church employees dating back decades. Sixteen individuals had five or more complaints lodged against them.

Whether that kind of evidence is enough for the case against Ross to prevail is unclear — particularly in light of the judge’s high legal standards.

Randles knows the tough odds better than most anyone.

She’s the attorney who won $1.2 million for her client in Bachmann vs. Gummersbach — the only priest abuse suit against the St. Louis archdiocese to make it to trial.

But even that case didn’t stand. Months later, the award was tossed out by an appellate court.

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EDITOR'S NOTE:  This story was updated to correct the name of the church in the 11th paragraph to Church of the Immaculate Conception.