A Miami jury returned a $100 million verdict Thursday against a retired Roman Catholic priest accused of sexually abusing dozens of boys over many years _ an amount unlikely to ever be collected, but one a victim's attorney said sends a strong message to child predators.
"It sets a standard," said attorney Jeff Herman, who represented Andres Susana in the case against the priest, Neil Doherty. "Now we know what a jury thinks about these cases. No. 2, it sends a message that we hope will protect other children."
Susana, now of Lansing, Mich., told reporters he was just 14 when he ran away from home and wound up in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood in the 1980s. It was there that more than 20 people now claim Doherty trolled for victims wearing his priest's collar, gaining their trust and then plying the boys with drugs and alcohol and sexually abusing them.
"What he did to me, it's unforgiveable. It's something I'm going to have to live with the rest of my life," said Susana, 40. "I feel that justice has been served. It's just really satisfying that my voice has been heard."
Despite the verdict's size, it is the least of Doherty's legal troubles. He has been jailed in neighboring Broward County since last year awaiting trial on multiple child sex abuse charges involving a different young victim. Doherty, 68, has pleaded not guilty to those charges.
Trial of the lawsuit lasted just a day and a half, with Susana taking the stand to describe the abuse and a psychologist describing the shame, humiliation and lasting emotional scars he suffered. Doherty testified only in a written deposition, taking the 5th Amendment against self-incrimination in answer to most questions because of the pending criminal case.
Doherty's attorney did not immediately return an email seeking comment Thursday.
Herman said the Miami-Dade County Circuit Court jury's verdict, which includes $90 million in punitive damages, is among the largest nationwide against an individual priest. The lawsuit did not name the Archdiocese of Miami, which has been targeted by numerous other lawsuits over allegations of sexual abuse by Doherty and other priests. Many have been settled.
"We weren't aware of it because it's a civil case against an individual," said Mary Ross Agosta, spokeswoman for the archdiocese.
A separate lawsuit filed on Susana's behalf against the archdiocese was dismissed because it came after the statute of limitations had passed, but Herman is appealing that ruling.
Susana said he lived silently with the effects of the abuse for years before deciding in February 2010 to come forward.
"It was just time for me to let it out," he said.
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