A 2013 case over bullying and harassment at St. Pius X Catholic School in Mobile has unearthed what appears to be acknowledgement of sexual abuse allegations made against the school’s pastor, Johnny S. Savoie, but lawyers for the school say the year-old allegations have only “opened up a can of worms” and are ultimately unrelated to the bullying lawsuits that brought them to the forefront of the public’s attention.
In A.S. v. St. Pius X — the first of what would become four separate cases — an unidentified student claims to have suffered repeated bullying at the school for more than a year despite attempts her mother made to address the issue with teachers and church administrators.
Several members of the school’s personnel, including Savoie, were named in the original lawsuit. In searching through Savoie’s personal files, attorneys for the plaintiffs found a transcript of an address the pastor gave to his parish in February 2014. That letter reads as follows:
“An accusation has been made against me that approximately nine years ago I was involved in an inappropriate sexual conduct with a 16-year-old. The accusation was reported to the archdiocese and then communicated to me. I adamantly deny the accusation. The archdiocese reported the accusation to the District Attorney, in accord with the Archdiocesan policy. I requested to take a lie detector test. I did so, and it was determined that I answered the questions with no deceit. The archdiocese has determined there is no evidence to support the accusation. Therefore, I will remain serving as a pastor of St.Pius X Parish. I ask for your prayers for me and for all concerned.” – Johnny S. Savoie
Attorneys for St. Pius have acknowledged the “very limited” disclosure, and transcripts from deposition in the bullying lawsuit ultimately revealed the accuser was a male who alleged to have been involved in “inappropriate sexual conduct” with Savoie from age 16 to 18 in or around 2005 when he was working at a church in Fairhope. The accuser’s name has not been released, not even to attorneys for the plaintiffs in the pending case.
Defendants have asked the court to deny resulting requests for subpoenas, citing attorney-client and work product privileges. According to its own policies, the Mobile Archdiocese is required to report any allegation of sexual abuse to local law enforcement, which it appears to have done.
Though the Mobile County District Attorney’s office said it was never contacted about the allegations, the Baldwin County’s District Attorney’s office issued a statement Feb. 19 confirming their office had been contacted by the school’s attorneys about the allegations against Savoie as early as December 2013.
However, based upon the nature of the allegations and the ages of the individuals involved, a representative of the Baldwin County DA’s office said “the alleged conduct did not violate any criminal statutes,” and action was not pursued. However, further questions about the investigation have gone unanswered.
Mobile County Assistant District Attorney Nicki Patterson is in charge of child sex crimes, and though she couldn’t speak about the alleged Savoie incident, she was willing to discuss Alabama law related to the matter.
“If anyone over the age of 16 has consensual sex it is not illegal. If it is consensual,” Patterson said. “Once you’re 16, standard adult laws for rape, sodomy or any kind of forced contact apply. It varies from state to state, but Alabama’s age of consent has been 16 for as long as I’m aware of.”
Attorneys David Kennedy and Christine Hernandez — the same legal team whose victory in federal court recently paved the way for same-sex marriage in Alabama — are also representing the students in the St. Pius case. However, because the case is pending, both Kennedy and Hernandez declined to comment for this report. However, court documents show several questions attorneys have asked that have gone unanswered since the discovery of Savoie’s letter addressing last year’s allegations.
Some of the unanswered questions included “when (Savoie) first learned about the allegation, and who informed him,” both of which attorneys from Vickers, Riis, Murray and Curran, L.L.C. advised him not to answer in earlier depositions.
Following a Feb. 20 hearing, defense attorney Mark Redditt wouldn’t comment about the allegations against Savoie, saying only, “it’s unrelated to this case” — a case he says is solely based on the liability St. Pius has in the cases of alleged bullying.
In previous court documents, attorneys for the plaintiffs said any attempt to hide or a failure to report the sexual abuse allegations would be an important factor pointing toward their original claims of “wantonness” on the school’s part, which is why several subpoenas related to the churches investigations were sought.
However, attorneys for St. Pius requested Judge Sarah Stewart bar the plaintiffs from issuing subpoenas to several individuals thought to have knowledge of the alleged abuse. Those included the district attorneys of both Baldwin and Mobile counties as well as several officials within the Archdiocese.
Kennedy also filed a request to depose independent investigators Clay Poche and Max Hansen, who were involved with a polygraph test given to Savoie. It’s important to note Hansen is also the husband of Lisa Hansen, who was formerly representing the defendants and is now employed by the Archdiocese as an in-house attorney.
Though representatives from Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) acknowledge there have only been alleged, the organization has still requested Savoie be suspended pending a proper investigation into the claims.
“When someone is accused of criminal behavior and they’re allowed to stay on the job, it does send an alarming signal to parents, especially within an institution that has a very sordid, well-documented track record of ignoring and concealing child sex crimes,” David Clohessy, SNAP’s executive director said. “In these situations, openness benefits everyone, except those who would ignore or conceal child sex crimes.”
As of now, Savoie remains on the job at St. Pius and officials with the chancery of Mobile’s Archdiocese have yet to respond for comment. However, in a Feb. 20 hearing related to one of the other St. Pius bullying lawsuits, Redditt said allowing additional depositions in the cases would create a “huge cost” for St. Pius X.
“The plaintiffs indicate they want to dispose people on issues completely unrelated to this case. Those include district attorneys and people within the archdiocese over an unrelated allegation against a gentleman who happens to be the pastor of this church,” Redditt said in court. “(The allegation) was made years ago when (Savoie) was in Fairhope. We could spend another $100,000 taking on these depositions, but it’s not going to change one thing that we’ll say today or anything (the plaintiffs) will respond to.”