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Originally published Thursday, November 15, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Settlement of $1.1 million in Catholic school sexual-abuse case

A principal abused the plaintiff in 1980; church leaders knew the principal's history of such behavior but allowed him to keep teaching.

Seattle Times religion reporter

A Skagit County man who was sexually abused years ago by a former Seattle Roman Catholic school principal is receiving one of the largest single-plaintiff settlements — $1.1 million — in this state in the Catholic Church sex-abuse cases.

The former St. Alphonsus School student says he was abused in 1980 when he was 13 by Brother Edward Courtney, who belonged to the Congregation of Christian Brothers religious order.

Court documents show some church leaders knew for years that Courtney sexually abused students, yet allowed him to continue teaching at school after school, including at O'Dea High School and at St. Alphonsus School, both in Seattle.

The settlement was reached Oct. 23 with the Seattle Archdiocese, which owns O'Dea and owns and operates St. Alphonsus School, and on Nov. 7 with the Congregation of Christian Brothers, which operates O'Dea. The archdiocese and the Christian Brothers are each responsible for paying half of the $1.1 million.

Michael Pfau, the victim's attorney, attributed the large settlement amount to the fact that "the abuse was significant" and to the number of witnesses who testified that the Christian Brothers and the archdiocese knew that Courtney was a problem and that people had complained about him.

Michael Patterson, an attorney for the Seattle Archdiocese, said the archdiocese hadn't been told of Courtney's history of abuse before he arrived at St. Alphonsus and that it removed him as soon as an allegation arose.

Steven Goldstein, an attorney with the Christian Brothers, declined to comment.

The lawsuit, filed under the initials B.B. in King County Superior Court in 2006, is one of several that have been filed against the Christian Brothers and the Seattle Archdiocese.

Courtney himself was named in a previous lawsuit by five men who say he abused them at O'Dea in the 1970s. That suit settled earlier this year for about $1.9 million.

Courtney has "expressed deep regret over his past actions and regrets that any harm has been done to his former students," said his attorney, John Bergmann.

Courtney, 72, left the Christian Brothers order around 1983. He taught at public schools after leaving the Catholic schools system, and pleaded guilty in 1988 to a felony indecent-liberties charge. He lives in Washington state and is unemployed, Bergmann said.

He "did have a problem"

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The Christian Brothers, an order known for its education work, apparently received allegations about Courtney as far back as the 1960s.

From the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, Courtney was transferred from schools in Michigan to Illinois until he ended up at O'Dea in 1974. In each case, superiors transferred him after they found out he had had sexual contact with students, Courtney said in his deposition.

During his first year at O'Dea, Courtney "did have a problem with a couple of boys," according to a document signed by Brother John McGowan, a former head of the regional Christian Brothers province.

In court documents, O'Dea victims described Courtney's grappling and wrestling with them — sometimes naked, grinding against them, and sometimes ejaculating on them.

McGowan acknowledged that provincial leaders had been aware of Courtney's problem for years — though he characterized it as a "problem with homosexuality."

"Any time the parents of an abused boy would appear in the office of the principal, then some new type of action would have to take place," McGowan wrote.

In spring 1978, "there was another confrontation of parents with principal telling of three incidents during the year when their son had been abused," McGowan wrote.

Courtney was removed from O'Dea in 1978.

The next year, Courtney applied to St. Alphonsus School, where he served as principal from about 1979 to 1980.

Patterson, the archdiocesan attorney, said the Christian Brothers — including O'Dea's principal — did not inform the archdiocese about Courtney's past.

In his deposition, Courtney admits to sexual contact with students while at St. Alphonsus and that he resigned from that school after being told by the pastor and others, including an archdiocesan lawyer, that a parent had complained.

At the time, Courtney apparently had second thoughts about resigning. The St. Alphonsus pastor urged him to do so, saying in a letter that resigning would allow Courtney to "save face and leave the area with the respect and admiration" of the community and that to do otherwise would be to "run the very real risk of turning this situation into a cause célèbre, thereby doing damage to your name and reputation and that of the school."

Pfau, the victim's attorney, says at least two parents had complained about Courtney to the St. Alphonsus pastor or others at the school before B.B.'s abuse in summer 1980.

The St. Alphonsus pastor said he received only one complaint about Courtney, which led to Courtney's removal.

Courtney ended up teaching in public schools, first at an elementary school in Parkland, Pierce County, from 1980 to 1982, and then at a junior high in Othello, Adams County, from 1982 to 1986.

Courtney pleaded guilty in 1988 to an indecent-liberties charge, which, he said in his deposition, stemmed from his sexual contact with students in Othello. He was ordered to serve 24 months probation, undergo sexual-offender treatment and have no unsupervised contact with anyone under 18, according to court records.

A psychologist who evaluated Courtney before his sentencing wrote in his report that "there may have been other allegations and documentation of pedophilic behavior during prior teaching positions. Apparently, no one has looked into this."

More lawsuits

About 40 men have sued the Christian Brothers and the Seattle Archdiocese, alleging past abuse by brothers at O'Dea and at Briscoe Memorial School, a now-defunct school in Kent.

Most of the men allege abuse at Briscoe; those suits are being negotiated in groups, by the decade in which the plaintiffs attended the school. About 15 of the men have settled.

Including the Briscoe suits, the Seattle Archdiocese has spent about $32.5 million in settlements with 249 plaintiffs since 2002, Patterson said. The claims of 37 plaintiffs remain.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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