Notes to Meeting Reveal Church Plans in Kos Case

Article excerpt

Minutes from a private meeting between Bishop Charles Grahmann and a group of powerful laymen reveal plans for an aggressive legal and public relations campaign designed to discredit, and eventually overturn, the $119.6 million verdict in the Rudolph Kos sex abuse case. The meeting took place in a downtown Dallas social club Aug. 11.

Notes from that meeting also contain evidence of possibly unethical communication between a judge slated to hear a crucial motion in the case and an attorney present at the meeting. The judge has since disqualified himself. Among those gathered to advise Grahmann were a district judge, a state representative and a former president of the state bar association.

A Dallas jury returned the verdict against the diocese in late July, finding it guilty of "gross negligence" for its handling of reports of sexual abuse by Kos, a priest who has since resigned.

Lawyers for the diocese have announced plans to appeal, moving initially to recuse trial judge Anne Ashby on charges of bias in favor of the plaintiffs (NCR, Aug. 15).

The minutes of the Aug. 11 meeting, along with notes from other strategy sessions involving diocesan officials -- anonymously leaked to the plaintiff's attorneys and subsequently made part of the legal record -- paint a picture of church officials and their lay supporters bitterly resentful of the jury's verdict.

While the notes do not always make clear who is speaking, variations on the remark "we are innocent" appear several times. Bishop Grahmann is quoted as charging that "anti-Catholic bias" played a role in the trial and subsequent events. Another person claimed the diocese did not get "a fair day in court."

The overall strategy that emerges from the notes is twofold. First, participants agreed to a public relations campaign to win back the Catholic faithful by assuring them of the church's compassion while simultaneously suggesting to the public that the trial was unfair and the award exaggerated. Second, while the legal issues are described as "complex," one core strategy is clear -- go after Ashby.

Portions of the notes that argue for aggressive public relations efforts include the statement "we can control the media," along with plans to focus blame on the trial judge, equating her with Judge Lance Ito and suggesting that she failed to "control the courtroom." The verdict is blamed on a "runaway jury."

Worried that these efforts might backfired, the notes include the caution to "take heat off the bishop." The notes also identify "protection of assets" as a key diocesan objective.

Nowhere in the documents is there any discussion as to whether the diocese bore some responsibility for failing to deal with Kos sooner. No conversation is recorded about dropping the appeal or trying to negotiate a settlement.

Lisa LeMaster, newly-hired spokesperson for the diocese, described the meeting as simply "one in a whole series of conversations. The bishop was asked to come," she said, "and he simply listened."

One measures of the seriousness with which Grahmann took the Aug. 11 meeting and the other sessions documented in the notes, however, is LeMaster herself. Her name is mentioned on one page of handwritten notes as a public relations expert the diocese might consult. Days later, Grahmann put LeMaster on retainer.

LeMaster, president of the LeMaster Group, a Dallas public relations firm, declined to tell an NCR reported how much she was being paid for her services. "My competitors would love to know that, but it's proprietary matter between me and the boss [Grahmann]," she said. The issue is especially sensitive since the diocese has argued that it cannot satisfy the $119.6 million verdict because it doesn't have the money.

LeMaster has a reputation as a tough, spirited antagonist. During an interview for this article, she made a point of asking to be quoted to the effect that attorneys for the plaintiffs in the Kos matter were motivated by the prospect of large contingency fees. …