ST. LOUIS (ChurchMilitant.com) - A 77-year-old former priest has filed a libel lawsuit against the archdiocese of St. Louis, claiming it has harmed his reputation for including him on a list of "credibly accused" child sex abusers 47 years after he left the priesthood.
William H. Toohey, who served as a priest at three St. Louis-area parishes from 1967–1970 and today is a father of three and grandparent to seven, denies abusing anyone.
Toohey's lawsuit, filed Nov. 3 in St. Louis County Circuit Court, seeks monetary damages from the archdiocese. The suit says the archdiocese made statements about him that "were materially false, patently false and libelous," and that it "should have known its actions were likely to cause injury to persons."
Toohey's suit further claims "harm to his reputation and garden variety loss of enjoyment of life."
Toohey claims he was blindsided when the archdiocese released a list in July and August naming 63 men with substantiated allegations against them of child sexual abuse. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Toohey is one of 26 men — seven still living — against whom allegations were never before publicly revealed.
The archdiocese claimed its list of accused was the result of "a long and extensive investigation conducted by a third-party agency staffed with skilled investigators, formerly of the FBI and state law enforcement."
But Toohey wonders about the extent of the investigation and whether it followed standard law enforcement protocols, since he was never contacted, according to him.
The lawsuit also says the archdiocese is falsely claiming the former priest was "removed from office," while Toohey maintains he voluntarily resigned.
An archdiocesan spokesperson said in an email to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the archdiocese is "confident in its position" regarding Toohey's case but admitted it was possible Toohey was never informed there was an accusation against him.
The spokesperson said this is the first case on record for the archdiocese of being sued by a priest accused of abuse.
Toohey has retained the well-known St. Louis criminal defense firm of Rosenblum Schwartz & Fry to represent him. The firm has handled a number of high-profile cases. For example, Scott Rosenblum was on the team of attorneys who defended former Missouri Governor Eric Greitens against charges of sexual misconduct, charges that were ultimately dropped.
When the St. Louis Post-Dispatch contacted Toohey in September for an interview, they found him living in a prosperous St. Louis suburb with his wife of 46 years. He had a successful career leading trade organizations in Missouri and Georgia, including the Home Builders Association of St. Louis.
David Clohessy, spokesman for Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), based in St. Louis, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he, too, believes this is the first case of its kind in Missouri.
But elsewhere — including the dioceses of Sacramento, Corpus Christi, Lubbock, Youngstown and Detroit — the release of clergy sex abuse lists and state reports has already prompted some clergy to file lawsuits claiming they have been falsely accused.
"I've seen somewhere around two dozen lawsuits like this around the country and never seen a priest prevail," Clohessy said. "It's rare, if not unprecedented, for a priest to be mistakenly included on one of these lists."
But Clohessy told Church Militant that these lawsuits also might be a way to deter other victims, witnesses and whistleblowers from coming forward.
"If a victim is pondering exposing his or her priest, she or he is apt to be much more reluctant or even stay silent if the predator seems litigious and aggressive," he said.
Clohessy also told the Post-Dispatch that the lawsuit could help reveal details about how the archdiocese manages these cases.
Toohey has said publicly he has been frustrated with Church leaders' increasingly liberal position on contraception and divorce. But he is not the only one citing his own orthodoxy while facing sex abuse charges.
In Detroit, accused priest Rev. Eduard Perrone is suing one of his accusers, Mary Rose Maher, who claims the priest "abused" her when he served her alcohol as an underage altar server. She has clarified that she has never been physically abused by him.
Perrone, who passed a polygraph test "with flying colors," has adamantly denied the claims, saying Maher was "trying to jump on an erroneous bandwagon," according to Click on Detroit.
Church Militant has reported extensively on Perrone's case, recent reports revealing that investigators for the archdiocese of Detroit manipulated and coached an accuser to make incriminating statements against Perrone, who is mulling the possibility of suing the archdiocese for defamation.
While the outcome of these cases is unclear, one trend is growing: The Church now finds itself in court battling both abuse victims as well as priests who claim to be falsely accused.