By Paul Duggan, The Washington Post
A Catholic priest who pleaded guilty in 1986 to molesting three youths was ruled liable for civil damages yesterday by a Montgomery County judge who said the priest had “unlawfully impeded” a lawsuit filed by one of the victims’ families.
In pretrial proceedings, the Rev. Peter M. McCutcheon, formerly a Prince George’s County parish priest, has repeatedly refused to give permission for psychologists and fellow clerics to testify in the lawsuit about counseling sessions they had with him in the early 1980s, about the time McCutcheon was committing the assaults.
Circuit Court Judge Stanley B. Frosh had ordered McCutcheon to release those counselors from what they view as their professional obligation to remain silent about the sessions.
Because McCutcheon has defied the judge’s order, Frosh yesterday found him in “default.” The ruling means that a jury in the lawsuit will be instructed to consider McCutcheon liable for negligence, clergy malpractice, assault and other misdeeds listed in the plaintiffs’ complaint.
The jurors will have discretion only in deciding how much money, if any, McCutcheon should pay in punitive and compensatory damages.
The suit is scheduled to go to trial Nov. 28.
Yesterday’s default ruling applies only to McCutcheon, not to the Archdiocese of Washington, which is a codefendant in the case and a main target of the plaintiffs’ suit.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs are seeking to show that before McCutcheon pleaded guilty in Prince George’s County, archdiocesan officials “knew or should have known” that McCutcheon was “an active pedophile.” The family alleges that church officials were negligent in allowing him to remain a parish priest before his arrest. McCutcheon, who is still a priest, formerly worked at St. Peter’s Church in Waldorf and St. John the Baptist de la Salle Church in Chillum.
By taking depositions from psychologists and clerics with whom McCutcheon consulted, the family’s lawyers said, they hope to learn whether McCutcheon’s pedophilia was brought to the attention of higher church officials.
The archdiocese has denied knowing of his problems before his arrest.
As they have all along, McCutcheon’s attorneys argued yesterday that their client can rightfully invoke the legal privileges of confidentiality that apply to psychologists and their patients, as well as to clerics and those seeking spiritual guidance.
Frosh has ruled that neither privilege applies in McCutcheon’s case, partly because McCutcheon has tried to defend himself by claiming that a mental illness, pedophilia, caused his actions. By raising that defense, the priest waived his right to confidentiality, the judge said.
One of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, James C. “Beau” Brincefield, Jr., said he wants to take depositions from “less than 20, maybe less than 10 psychologists and clerics with whom McCutcheon consulted.
Some of those counselors have said they will not submit to depositions without McCutcheon’s permission, even though Frosh has ruled that confidentiality privileges do not apply in McCutcheon’s case, according to Brincefield.
He said McCutcheon has threatened to file lawsuits against those who do submit to depositions. McCutcheon “has attempted – successfully, I think – to gag the witnesses in this case,” Brincefield told Judge Frosh. McCutcheon, who was ordained in 1979, was originally sentenced to 25 years in state prison for the sexual assault.
In January, however, a Circuit Court judge in Prince George’s County reduced the sentence to probation on several conditions, Including a requirement that McCutcheon spend at least a year in a church run treatment center in New Mexico. He was on leave from the center for yesterday’s hearing.
Reprinted from The Washington Post, Saturday September 24, 1988.