Victims of a former Lutheran minister who sexually molested boys won a jury award of nearly $37 million Thursday, bringing the total payout in the case to about $69 million.
The case involving former minister Gerald Patrick Thomas Jr. is the most serious to hit the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which has about 5 million members, and has drawn comparisons to the worst abuses committed during the Roman Catholic molestation crisis.
In addition to Thursday’s verdict, an attorney for the plaintiffs disclosed that separate settlements reached before the trial totaled $32 million. Those deals were struck with the Chicago-based denomination and the seminary in Columbus, Ohio, that Thomas attended.
The lawsuit charged that former Bishop Mark Herbener of the Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod, and former bishop’s assistant Earl Eliason, ignored warnings about Thomas’ behavior.
Thomas, minister of Marshall’s Good Shepherd Lutheran Church from 1997 until his arrest in 2001, was sentenced last year to 397 years in state prison for molesting boys. The victims said the congregation was not warned about several incidents in which Thomas was accused of inappropriate behavior.
Nine plaintiffs won awards in the lawsuit, ranging from $50,000 to $9.8 million. “I find no reason the verdict should not be accepted,” said District Judge Bonnie Leggat. The earlier settlements included those nine victims plus five others.
Other terms of settlements reached by plaintiffs’ attorney Edward Hohn include apologies to victims and parishioners nationwide; development of a strategy for preventing and handling sexual misconduct, including a review of all current ministers; and creation of a denomination-wide national reporting system for sexual abuse.
“Just as important today are the non-economic agreements, which will hopefully not only be the start of a new reformation for the Lutheran Church but will also serve to raise the bar nationally for all institutions charged with public trust over our children,” Hohn said.
John Brooks, spokesman for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, denied any such non-economic agreements involve the national denomination.
“We are already doing many of these things. We already have policies in place,” Brooks said. “We’ve apologized for what happened here, and we’re sorry anyone was victimized by Gerald Thomas and the behavior he exhibited.”
Attorney Tracy Crawford, who represented the synod, said of the jury verdict: “I’m not going to say I was pleased with it, but at the same time, this was a tragic case for these boys.”
In his closing argument, Crawford said Herbener and Eliason acted reasonably in assigning Thomas to Marshall, based upon his graduation from the Trinity Lutheran Seminary.
But plaintiffs attorneys said the synod did not disclose that Thomas had given tequila shots to two teenage boys and that the boys had found a gay pornographic video in the parsonage when Thomas served as a ministry intern in Wilson, Texas, in 1996.
Eliason denied knowing about Thomas’ past. But the victims made Eliason’s background an issue, noting that he pleaded no-contest three times — in 1987, 1996 and 2003 — to indecent exposure charges.
Thomas, 41, was charged in 2001 after a teenager found nude images of friends on the pastor’s computer and tried to blackmail him.
Convicted on federal child pornography charges, he is serving five years at the U.S. Penitentiary in Beaumont. His state sentence will start after that.