Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Lawsuit against priest settled

No wrongdoing is acknowledged in $1.2 million agreement

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A former altar boy at Mother Seton Parish in Germantown who accused a priest there of sexually abusing him has reached a $1.2 million settlement with a Catholic religious order.

The Rev. Aaron Joseph Cote, 56, was accused of abusing Brandon Rains, now 20, from June 2001 to July 2002 at locations in Germantown and Washington, D.C. Rains filed a lawsuit against Cote in November 2005. Cote worked as a member of the Order of Dominican Fathers and Brothers in New York City and was assigned as an associate pastor and youth minister at Mother Seton from 1999 to 2002.

The allegations of sexual abuse were reported to Montgomery County Police on Aug. 14, 2003. No criminal charges were ever filed against Cote, police said.

After the allegations were made in 2003, the order sent Cote for psychological evaluation, conducted an investigation and cleared him of any wrongdoing, said officials with both the local archdiocese and the Providence, R.I., diocese, where Cote was assigned at the time.

Cote could not be reached for comment. Representatives of the Dominican order did not return calls for comment.

The Washington Archdiocese and the Dominicans were named as co-defendants in the lawsuit, which was filed in Superior Court of the District of Columbia. The Dominicans, not the archdiocese, reached the settlement, archdiocese spokeswoman Susan Gibbs said Thursday. There was no admission of wrongdoing in the settlement, according to Rains’ attorney, Jeff Anderson of St. Paul, Minn.

Gibbs said the archdiocese was not aware of any other allegations against Cote.

When the lawsuit was filed, Cote was placed on administrative leave from his posts as youth minister and associate pastor at St. Pius V Church in Providence, representatives of the Dominican order said at the time.

Cote also served at St. Jane Frances de Chantel Catholic Church in Bethesda in the late 1990s, prior to his Mother Seton assignment.

Rains was 14 and 15 years old at the time of the alleged abuse and living in Germantown with his mother and stepfather. Rains was not available to comment. When the lawsuit was filed, he was in the Gulf Coast region, working to rebuild homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina, said his stepfather, Joe McMorrow. He is now working in management, McMorrow said, but declined to say where Rains lives now.

Rains’ allegations were not the first reports of Cote’s questionable behavior.

‘‘There have been 10 different reports of sexual misconduct and abuse” against him, Anderson said during a press conference in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. The reports, Anderson said, came from people in 10 different parishes in six states over 20 years.

A teacher in Ohio wrote a letter to the Dominicans in June 2005 and informed them that a former student confided in her that Cote abused him in the late 1980s, according to letters filed in the court record. In letters to the Ohio teacher, the Dominicans asked her to tell the alleged victim that they would talk or meet with him at his convenience, but the man never came forward, the record shows.

The Dominicans never investigated or reported that allegation to police because the alleged victim never made a direct report, according to correspondence filed in court.

At the Ohio church years ago, some parishioners were concerned that Cote was having pizza parties and sleepovers with youth members, according to a court disposition provided by Rains’ attorneys on Thursday.

‘‘We were concerned because we just thought it was strange that it always included the young boys and it didn’t include the girls of the parish,” one witness said in a sworn deposition taken as part of the Rains lawsuit.

Other court records indicate the Dominicans had received reports of alcohol abuse and other ‘‘questionable behavior” since the 1980s.

Rains’ parents hope others who may have been abused by Cote come forward to authorities.

‘‘We trusted him with our son, many people have,” said McMorrow, who now lives in Frederick. ‘‘If he hadn’t come forward, no one would have known about this.”