From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Plaintiffs Get $8 Million In ELCA Portion Of Texas Civil Case
Thu, 22 Apr 2004 15:37:25 -0500
ELCA NEWS SERVICE
April 22, 2004
Plaintiffs Get $8 Million In ELCA Portion Of Texas Civil Case Settlement
CHICAGO (ELCA) Fourteen plaintiffs and their attorneys will get $8
million in a settlement of a civil suit against the churchwide
organization of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
Initially, all of the ELCA portion of the settlement will be paid from
insurance funds, said John R. Brooks, a spokesman for the ELCA. In
reaching the settlement, Brooks said the ELCA churchwide organization
admitted to no wrongdoing.
The churchwide organization settled March 27 with the 14 plaintiffs
in a civil suit brought against the church in Marshall, Texas. The case
involved the criminal behavior of a former ELCA pastor, Gerald P. Thomas,
Jr. He was found guilty of sexual assault against children in a trial
last year and was sentenced to a lengthy prison term.
"We continue to pray for all who have been affected adversely by this
disturbing case, and we ask your prayers for the victims of Thomas and for
the congregation that he once served in Marshall," Brooks said. "We are
hopeful the money will help the young boys affected. We are grateful that
the court has placed this money in a trust to help the victims." The
churchwide organization is "deeply sorry" that anyone was victimized by
Thomas, Brooks emphasized.
The settlement was approved April 12 in a Marshall court by District
Judge Bonnie Leggat. At the request of the plaintiffs' attorney, terms of
the settlement were not disclosed immediately by the court because some
parties in the suit chose to defend themselves in a trial that began April
13, Brooks said. Those defendants were the ELCA Northern Texas-Northern
Louisiana Synod, its former bishop, the Rev. Mark B. Herbener, and a
former assistant to the bishop, Earl H. Eliason.
The trial concluded April 22. The jury returned a verdict totaling
nearly $37 million, divided among nine plaintiffs. Until the court enters
a judgment, the amount to be attributed to the synod can not be determined
with certainty, Brooks said.
"The ELCA churchwide organization is distressed and disappointed at
the outcome of the civil trial in Texas," Brooks said. "Our thoughts and
prayers are with the Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod and its
leaders. Decisions about possible appeals will be determined by the
Other defendants in addition to the ELCA settled separately with the
plaintiffs before trial started. The others who settled are Trinity
Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio; the Southeast Michigan Synod Candidacy
Committee; and Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Marshall, Texas, the
congregation where Thomas was once a pastor.
In a statement issued April 12, Brooks said the ELCA was grateful
that, with the cooperation of its insurance carriers, its share of the
total settlement payment is being funded without adversely affecting the
mission and ministry of this church. Three ELCA insurance carriers are
involved in the churchwide organization's settlement, each of which had
insurance in force during different time periods, Brooks explained.
Two of the three insurance carriers for the ELCA had policies with no
provision for deductibles to be paid by the church; the third carrier had
more than one policy and there is a disagreement about whether or not the
church must pay deductibles. "We do not expect to have to pay a
deductible," Brooks said, "but if a deductible is paid, that information
will be shared when known." Brooks said the churchwide organization is
hopeful of reaching a quick resolution of this matter with the third
The churchwide organization decided to settle because the church
wanted to avoid the uncertainty of a jury trial, Brooks said. Attorney's
fees to defend the church in the Thomas case were also paid by insurance
funds, he added.
"From the beginning the churchwide organization was confident that we
had substantial defenses in this case," he said. "However, we knew the
matter could have been in the appeals process for years. That would not
have been helpful to the victims."
Thomas was pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Marshall, from
1999 until his arrest in May 2001. Thomas pleaded guilty to federal
criminal charges of possession of child pornography and was sentenced to
serve five years in a federal prison. In state court he was convicted in
2003 of 11 counts of multiple sex crimes against children. He will begin
serving a 397-year sentence in a state prison once the federal prison term
In March 2002 the plaintiffs filed the civil suit against the ELCA
and other parties.
In the April 12 statement, Brooks said that "prior to Thomas' arrest
the ELCA was unaware of the former pastor's reprehensible conduct toward
the plaintiffs in the case."
Allegations of inappropriate sexual contact with children by ELCA
clergy are "very rare," he said. Molestation of children is a crime, and
the ELCA cooperates fully with law enforcement authorities when incidents
do occur, Brooks said. The ELCA urges its congregations and members to
immediately report cases of suspected child sexual abuse to local
authorities, he said. The ELCA seeks compliance with all states' laws
regarding the reporting of child abuse.
Brooks said the ELCA does not tolerate cases of sexual abuse
involving clergy. He noted the ELCA's clergy standards policy which
states: "Ordained ministers are expected to reject sexual promiscuity, the
manipulation of others for purposes of sexual gratification, and all
attempts at sexual seduction and sexual harassment, including taking
physical or emotional advantage of others."
"When ELCA bishops are presented with allegations of improper conduct
by pastors, they investigate these matters promptly," Brooks said. "If
there is credible evidence to support the charges, the bishop will
immediately seek the pastor's resignation from the ELCA's clergy roster.
ELCA bishops do not have authority to reassign clergy, and they do not
move known perpetrators to other ministry locations."
People who seek to become ordained ministers in the ELCA go through
an extended process of study and evaluation, Brooks said. To the church's
knowledge, no other pastor who completed this process has ever been
accused of the conduct for which Thomas was convicted in Texas, he said.
"Still, in a continuing effort to guard against such tragedies, the
ELCA will review its guidelines and procedures for candidacy for the
ordained ministry," Brooks said.
For information contact:
John Brooks, Director (773) 380-2958 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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