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An Indiana priest filed suit on Friday, alleging that when officials in the Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana said he was accused of sexual misconduct with a minor, they violated diocesan policy, and committed both fraud and defamation along the way. 

The lawsuit was filed by Fr. James DeOreo, ordained in 2018, who alleges that his diocese was not honest when it said in March 2022 that he had been accused of a “possible violation of the sixth commandment by a cleric with a minor.”

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Mass celebrated at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, in Lafayette, Indiana. Courtesy photo.

The suit also alleges that Lafayette’s diocesan vicar general committed fraud, by helping to convince a former parishioner to allege falsely that DeOreo had “groomed him.”

Before he sued his diocese, DeOreo in 2022 took his accuser to court, asking a judge to declare that the man’s allegations against him were unsubstantiated. The case was dismissed this month, with DeOreo and the man settling the matter in an out-of-court mediation.

While DeOreo’s current lawsuit against his diocese asks for $10 million in damages, the priest has said that he is eager to reach a settlement, if Bishop Tim Doherty, 73, will speak publicly on his behalf.

“If at any moment the bishop proclaims [that] … there is not a single instance or piece of evidence which shows any misconduct or wrongdoing, I will happily enter negotiations with the Bishop and the diocese to bring litigation to an immediate conclusion,” DeOreo wrote last week in a letter to supporters.

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The story that prompted DeOreo’s lawsuit against the diocese is complicated.

It begins in January 2021. 

In that month, a parishioner at St. Alphonsus Liguori Parish in Zionsville, Indiana, complained to the Lafayette diocese that a few years earlier — when he was in high school — DeOreo had encouraged him to participate in the Exodus 90 program of spiritual discipline, and that the priest’s encouragement of regular fasting had “quickly spiraled into a vicious eating disorder.”

The parishioner told the diocese that he was “burdened with undue pressure” to fast by DeOreo, and “I believed the only way I could love God was by [fasting.]”

In response to the parishioner’s letter, the diocese briefly investigated the matter, instructing DeOreo not to engage in ministry during the investigation. 

But in February 2021, according to the lawsuit, a diocesan investigator found the parishioner’s allegation unsubstantiated, concluding that the priest had not caused the eating disorder. DeOreo resumed priestly ministry. 

Nevertheless, according to DeOreo’s lawsuit, the Lafayette diocese agreed to pay for the parishioner’s therapy, apparently to address his sense of having been harmed by DeOreo.

That kind of agreement is not especially unusual, U.S. dioceses frequently offer to pay for therapeutic sessions by people who claim to have been harmed by priests, even if their allegations are not substantiated.

But according to the lawsuit, Lafayette’s offer had an unusual stipulation: That Fr. Theodore Dudzinsky, who is diocesan vicar general and supervises the diocesan victim assistance program, could attend the therapy sessions.

“Dudzinski claimed a right, ostensibly on behalf of the Diocese, to sit in on Complainer’s therapy sessions between February and September, 2021,” the lawsuit said.

That’s where the lawsuit alleges even more unusual conduct — claiming that the diocesan vicar general encouraged the parishioner to make new allegations against DeOreo. 

According to the lawsuit, during therapy sessions, “Dudzinski informed Complainer and his therapist that the Diocese would be inclined to either reopen the investigation, or initiate a new investigation if Complainer’s allegations were of a sexual nature.”

The lawsuit charges that in August and September 2021, Dudzinski worked “with Complainer…to create the false impression in Complainer that DeOreo would be held responsible and punished for allegations of sexual abuse made by Complainer and that the Diocese would tender compensation to Complainer, regardless of the veracity of those allegations, and preyed upon Complainer’s desire for vengeance and blame for his eating disorder.”

In October 2021, the parishioner sent a new letter to the Lafayette diocese, alleging sexual misconduct on DeOreo’s part. 

“My therapist and I have been working with the Diocese to provide greater clarity to the situation. As I have gone through counseling, I have been able to come to terms with aspects of the abuse that I had previously been unable to; namely sexual harassment and grooming on the part of Fr. DeOreo,” the parishioner wrote.

The parishioner claimed that DeOreo had committed psychological abuse, with the priest “grooming me toward sexual assault.” 

The parishioner identified three instances of alleged grooming: 

  • that DeOreo had allegedly told a lewd and off-color joke, which, the parishioner said, “made me feel uncomfortable and unsafe.” DeOreo denied that had occurred.

  • that DeOreo had once said in the presence of the parishioner, “I’m feeling really tempted right now.” DeOreo denied that had occurred.

  • that when the parishioner, other young people, and adult chaperones were visiting the rectory, DeOreo encouraged the parishioner to enter his bedroom, in order to view a painting hanging on the wall. While the parishioner said that he was alone in the bedroom — that DeOreo was not present — he told the diocese he was “deeply uncomfortable” to have been permitted in the priest’s bedroom. DeOreo said the retelling was inaccurate, but that he had permitted a group of young people to enter his bedroom together, while he was in another room and adult chaperones were present, to view a painting.

The parishioner’s letter to the diocese insisted that the allegations were of grooming, not sexual contact.

“I would like to be clear from the start, at no point was there any sexual contact; it was all through verbal communication and innuendo,” he wrote.

The diocese initiated an investigation into the allegation, and DeOreo was placed on leave from his assignment — but not prohibited from ministry, he said.

According to DeOreo’s lawsuit, the diocesan review board interviewed the parishioner in late October 2021. 

Several weeks later, on Nov. 19, Lafayette’s Bishop Doherty issued a decree stating that the priest had committed “a possible violation of the sixth commandment by a cleric with a minor,” and initiating a preliminary canonical investigation. 

At the same time, according to the lawsuit, the diocese entered negotiations with the parishioner regarding a possible settlement of his claim. 

DeOreo alleges that as that negotiation got underway, Dudzinski, the vicar general, incorrectly told the parishioner that DeOreo had been forbidden from all contact with minors, and was entirely suspended.

According to the suit, little happened after that, for months — until March 7, 2022, when the parishioner complained to the diocese that DeOreo had attended a high school swim meet with a parishioner family who had invited him. 

Four days later, according to the lawsuit, DeOreo was suspended from all public ministry, prohibited from wearing clerical garb, and told to vacate the rectory where he was living.

The next Sunday, the diocese announced publicly that DeOreo had been suspended from ministry for “allegations of inappropriate conduct with a minor,” urging parishioners to contact Child Protective Services if they were concerned.

DeOreo’s lawsuit charges that the diocesan announcement was defamatory and unfair — that it suspended him from ministry not because some new or credible evidence showed he had acted inappropriately with minors, but because the parishioner complained that the priest had violated a diocesan decree by going to the swim meet. 

The priest insists he hadn’t violated any decree, and that the diocesan explanation of his situation was untruthful — misrepresenting the allegations against him, and how far they had gotten in the canonical process. 

DeOreo said that while the diocese had suggested it had issued new prohibitions because it was beginning a formal penal process, it hadn’t actually even concluded its preliminary investigation.

The diocese was “falsely … representing that an investigation had occurred and that substantial evidence pointed toward DeOreo’s misconduct, guilt, and/or culpability,” the lawsuit alleges.

This was, DeOreo claims, an “untruth.”

Now, the priest claims, for more than a year, he’s been in a canonical limbo, with no investigation happening, while “the diocese has refused to retract the statement or otherwise clarify that DeOreo was not suspended for sexual misconduct with a minor, instead allowing the misinformation [it] created … to persist.”

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The Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana has not yet responded to the lawsuit in court, and told The Pillar Monday that it did not yet have a comment on the case.

But the suit comes at a challenging time for the Indiana diocese.

Doherty has faced pushback in recent months against a parish reorganization plan that would cut by effectively half the number of “pastorates,” or clustered parishes, across the diocese.

Priests of the diocese have told The Pillar that the process has mostly been designed centrally and by outside consultants, with little consultation of priests or practicing Catholics across the diocese. 

“Morale among the presbyterate is very low,” one priest told The Pillar, because of management issues which have surfaced in the planning process for the parish mergers, he said.

“None of the priests have been allowed to even have information about all of this. We just get very tightly controlled dispersals of information — and it seems like they don’t trust us even to know, let alone for us to be consulted.”

According to several sources in the Lafayette diocese, priests and laity of the diocese have raised concern to the apostolic nuncio about the planning process for consolidation, but have not yet received a response.

Nevertheless, a lawsuit filed by a priest against his diocese is unusual, even among priests who argue that they have not received adequate due process when faced with allegations.

Michael Einterz, DeOreo’s lawyer, told The Pillar this week that it is novel for a priest to sue his diocese in civil court. But he said DeOreo’s circumstances warranted it.

“It is also not very common for the leadership of a diocese to publicly make statements about their priests that could be interpreted as false statements,” the lawyer argued.

The priest could not be reached by The Pillar for comment.

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