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The Associated Press State & Local Wire

April 23, 2004, Friday, BC cycle

Payout in Lutheran abuse case totals $69 million

BYLINE: By BOBBY ROSS JR., AP Religion Writer

SECTION: State and Regional

LENGTH: 896 words

DATELINE: MARSHALL, Texas

Dozens of thick blue notebooks fill a law office a block from the East Texas courthouse where sexual abuse victims of a former Lutheran minister won a jury award of nearly $37 million – bringing the total payout in the case to about $69 million.

The notebooks contain hundreds of thousands of images of child pornography taken from three computers in former pastor Gerald Patrick Thomas Jr.’s parsonage, attorneys said.

Two poster-size photographs of Thomas – who was sentenced last year to 397 years in state prison for molesting boys – rest atop office shelves. One shows Thomas with his arm around a victim. The other shows “the wolf in sheep’s clothing,” as one lawyer put it, as Thomas wears a white clerical robe and holds a Bible.

For three years, the office served as the “war room” for the plaintiffs’ attorneys as they sought to build a case that Thomas had accomplices – namely the Lutheran authorities who ordained him and assigned him to Marshall despite accusations of past inappropriate behavior.

The jury of eight men and four women, who heard seven days of testimony, agreed. The first evidence of that came about four hours into the deliberations Thursday morning when jurors sent the judge a note. Their request: A calculator.

About an hour later, they emerged with a verdict against the Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

They awarded nine plaintiffs amounts ranging from $50,000 to $9.8 million, depending on their medical needs and the level of abuse suffered. The victims were in the courtroom when the verdict was announced.

“Finally, for the first time, someone has been held responsible other than the rabid dog,” lead counsel Edward Hohn said, speaking to reporters in the office where he spent so many long days. “The owners of the rabid dog were held responsible today for sending this predator into our community with knowledge of what he was all about.”

The case involving Thomas is the most serious to hit the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which has about 5 million members, and has drawn comparisons to the worst abuses committed during the Roman Catholic molestation crisis.

Thomas, 41, was charged in 2001 after a teenager found nude images of friends on the pastor’s computer and tried to blackmail him.

Convicted on federal child pornography charges, he is serving five years at the U.S. Penitentiary in Beaumont. His state sentence will start after that.

In addition to Thursday’s verdict, an attorney for the plaintiffs disclosed that separate settlements reached before the trial totaled $32 million. Those deals were struck with the Chicago-based denomination and the seminary in Columbus, Ohio, that Thomas attended. They involved an additional five victims, including some from Ohio.

The lawsuit charged that former Bishop Mark Herbener of the Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod based in Dallas, and former bishop’s assistant Earl Eliason, ignored warnings about Thomas’ behavior.

Thomas was minister of Marshall’s Good Shepherd Lutheran Church from 1997 until his arrest in 2001. The victims said the congregation was not warned about several incidents in which Thomas was accused of inappropriate behavior.

Other terms of settlements reached by plaintiffs’ attorney Edward Hohn include apologies to victims and parishioners nationwide; development of a strategy for preventing and handling sexual misconduct, including a review of all current ministers; and creation of a denomination-wide national reporting system for sexual abuse.

“Just as important today are the non-economic agreements, which will hopefully not only be the start of a new reformation for the Lutheran Church but will also serve to raise the bar nationally for all institutions charged with public trust over our children,” Hohn said.

John Brooks, spokesman for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, denied any such non-economic agreements involve the national denomination.

“We are already doing many of these things. We already have policies in place,” Brooks said. “We’ve apologized for what happened here, and we’re sorry anyone was victimized by Gerald Thomas and the behavior he exhibited.”

Attorney Tracy Crawford, who represented the synod, said of the jury verdict: “I’m not going to say I was pleased with it, but at the same time, this was a tragic case for these boys.”

In his closing argument, Crawford said Herbener and Eliason acted reasonably in assigning Thomas to Marshall, based upon his graduation from the Trinity Lutheran Seminary.

But plaintiffs attorneys said the synod did not disclose that Thomas had given tequila shots to two teenage boys and that the boys had found a gay pornographic video in the parsonage when Thomas served as a ministry intern in Wilson, Texas, in 1996.

Eliason denied knowing about Thomas’ past. But the victims made Eliason’s background an issue, noting that he pleaded no-contest three times – in 1987, 1996 and 2003 – to indecent exposure charges.

Hohn said the victims were heroes for reliving their pain on the witness stand.

“We all are so proud for these little boys for coming forward and going up there and testifying and telling the truth,” he said.

Bobby Ross Jr. has covered religion since 1999. He can be reached at bross(at)ap.org.

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