Jury finds church liable for slander, distress

Awards Post Falls man $800K in damages

Coeur d'Alene Press/December 17, 2004
By Dave Turner

Post Falls -- A Kootenai County jury on Thursday found an ultra-conservative Catholic church liable for slandering a former parishioner.

Jurors unanimously awarded Anthony J. Ferro $200,000 in compensatory and $600,000 in punitive damages after an eight-day civil trial in 1st District Court.

Ferro, a Coeur d'Alene wine distributor filed suit against the Post Falls Immaculate Conception Chapel of the Society of St. Pius X in August 2003, claiming a former priest interfered with his marriage and slandered him in front of the congregation.

"It's enough to get me out of trouble and set the record straight," said Ferro.

"It's close to what we asked for," said Ferro's lawyer, Jed Manwaring.

He asked jurors in his closing to award $250,000 compensatory and $750,000 punitive.

Manwaring told 1st District Judge Charles Hosack he would submit a judgment form for his signature within a day.

Lawyers for the church had no comment on the verdict.

Ferro claimed the Rev. James H. Doran "abused his office as spiritual director for his parishioners" when he counseled his now-ex-wife without his consent and outside his presence. He also claimed Doran "ordered" him to undergo psychiatric evaluations, then published libelous statements about his mental condition to other church members.

The suit named Doran, the Post Falls priory, as well as the entire religious order as defendants.

The jury went into deliberations late Wednesday morning and returned with the verdict shortly after noon Thursday.

The jury found Doran inflicted intentional emotional distress upon Ferro. For that, they awarded the $200,000.

They also found that the Rev. Peter Scott, as the agent for the society, approved Doran's conduct toward Ferro.

Ferro claimed following Doran's arrival in Post Falls in 1992, the priest "began to engage in a host of inappropriate actions during his term as parish priest."

He said Doran began to take private horse riding lessons from his wife which were "hurtful and shameful" because they "unjustly provided Mrs. Ferro greater standing with the parish priest than her husband."

Ferro also claimed Doran engaged in private counseling sessions outside his presence and against his wishes, despite assurances by Doran the sessions would involve both spouses.

Those sessions, Ferro said, "were inappropriate, held in bad faith and caused great harm" to the marriage.

The couple eventually split in a reportedly messy divorce.

Ferro said Doran ordered him to undergo a psychiatric examination. The results, Ferro said, concluded he suffered from "no mental defects, imbalances, instabilities, disorders or other illnesses."

But on Christmas Eve 1993, Ferro alleged, Doran sent a letter to about a dozen people which contained "false, malicious and defamatory statements."

Ferro claimed in the letter, included in the court filing, Doran suggested the psychiatrist was not to be believed. Ferro said it caused "great division within (his) family."

Ferro also claimed Doran, in a sermon given in March 1996 to more than 450 parishioners, defamed him by questioning his adequacy as a father, alleging disobedience to Doran's orders and that he was impossible to deal with. The sermon also allegedly instructed parishioners to have no social or business dealings with Ferro.

Ferro and his wife, who was at one time married to actor David Soul, split in 1994 and underwent a two-year-long legal battle for custody of their daughter. Doran's letter was used as ammunition during that fray.

The filing also claims Doran said in his sermon he ordered the couple to divorce, resulting in Ferro being "ostracized by a large percentage of the parishioners."

Ferro also claimed Doran formed an "honor guard" to protect him and members of that guard ridiculed him and even went so far as to pantomime assaults upon him.

Doran left Post Falls in 1996.

In 1999, Ferro published "The Assault of Catholic Fatherhood in Post Falls Idaho," a lengthy recitation of his battle with Doran and church hierarchy.

Ferro said the actions of the priests became so severe it prevented him from attending Mass at the church, and he was threatened he would be arrested for trespassing if he came to the church.

There was no word if the church planned to appeal the verdict.

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