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Unsealing cases reveals details of woman’s case against priest

When the Review-Journal asked the Rev. William Kenny to discuss a lawsuit accusing him of bilking more than $200,000 from an elderly parishioner, the Diocese of Las Vegas reacted by relieving the popular priest of his duties, but quickly reinstated him.

At the time, February 2007, a diocese spokesman said Bishop Joseph Pepe wouldn’t discuss the issue because “the case is sealed.”

That sealed status also concealed other troubling accusations, the Review-Journal recently learned.

Case files say a second priest, closely associated with the accused cleric, coached the victim before her testimony was taken in a deposition, and that the accused priest himself was allowed to be present during her deposition. And it was the diocese itself that requested that the case be sealed from public view.

“It is hard to imagine a case where the duty to protect the public from this type of misconduct could be more compelling,” states the plaintiffs’ argument for keeping the case unsealed and open to the public. “A trusted priest who admits taking money from his 88-year-old parishioner is the very type of offense the community should know about.”

The family of former parishioner Phyllis Kochansky, according to court records, alleged in its lawsuit two years ago that the Rev. Jerry Nadine visited Kochansky at her assisted-living facility the day before she was to give a deposition, at which she would recount the circumstances surrounding the lawsuit against Christ the King Catholic Church, pastor Kenny and the diocese.

Also, the records state, Kenny attended the next day’s deposition wearing his priestly habit, and sat three feet from the nervous senior citizen while she fielded questions from his attorney.

In response, the church stated Nadine wasn’t acting as its agent if and when he visited the elderly plaintiff before her deposition; that Nadine couldn’t have been working for the church at that time because he was on administrative leave; and that the Kochansky family’s attorney was “reckless” in preparing a pleading that accused the church of acting inappropriately.

David Liebrander, the Las Vegas attorney who represented Kochansky and her family, and officials with the diocese declined earlier this month to comment on the case. Judge Ken Cory, who presided over the case, imposed a gag order that prohibits them from discussing the lawsuit, they said.

The lawsuit was settled and sealed from public view in September 2006, but records from that case — and dozens of other sealed lawsuits dating back to the early 1990s — are available for the first time on the Clark County District Court Web site.

Previously, virtually no information was available on sealed lawsuits. Review-Journal stories last year about sealed cases prompted the state Supreme Court in January to enact rules limiting the circumstances and procedures under which cases may be sealed, but the rules don’t affect cases sealed years earlier.

However, armed with computer software not available until a couple years ago, courthouse administrators earlier this year started to either unseal or “properly seal” lawsuits.

Since the lawsuit against Kenny and Christ the King was properly sealed, some information has become available. An order sealing the file of case documents, which contain more details, still stood earlier this month.

But the Review-Journal was able to see a file that included the complaint against Kenny and the church, their vague response to the complaint, a motion and counter motion on whether to seal the case and a handful of other documents filed before an out-of-court settlement was reached.

Kochansky, who volunteered regularly at Christ the King Catholic Church in southwestern Las Vegas, turned to the Rev. Kenny to help her manage $350,000 her husband left her when he died, according to the complaint.

The money was part of a court settlement Kochanksy’s husband, a security guard, received following a serious injury years earlier. Afterward, the couple moved from their mobile home so Phyllis Kochansky could be closer to the church she loved.

According to the lawsuit against the priest and the diocese, “Plaintiff, who has a grade school education, and is a woman of extremely modest means, completely trusted Kenny, and allowed him access to her WFB (Well Fargo Bank) accounts with the understanding that he would assist her paying her bills and balancing her checkbook. Instead, Kenny abused this trust by converting over $200,000 for his own use without the permission of plaintiff. … Unbeknownst to the plaintiff, this bond of trust was a sham.”

Concerned over Kenny’s management of their relative’s money, Kochansky’s family from Pennsylvania notified the diocese in 1997 of its concerns, but nothing was ever done, according to the lawsuit. During a subsequent visit to Las Vegas, family members compelled Kenny to confess before they went forward with a lawsuit, according to the documents the family filed.

A confidential settlement was reached, but not before the litigants argued before Cory over whether the case should be sealed or, like the vast majority of lawsuits, be kept open and available for the public to see.

After Cory had temporarily sealed the lawsuit, the defendants demanded the case be permanently sealed based on the “gravity” of the complaint, questions over whether the plaintiff actually wanted to sue the priest she trusted for years and the “reckless approach” used by the family’s attorney, according to the lawsuit.

A diocese motion states, “The dubious nature of the present action and its underlying validity, when balanced with the potential for prejudice against these defendants, weighs heavily in favor of maintaining the judicial records in this case under seal. The interests include: possibility of prejudicial pretrial publicity; the danger of impairing law enforcement or judicial efficiency; and the privacy interests of litigants or third parties.”

Liebrander, attorney for the Kochansky family, opposed sealing the case and he alleged the diocese acted inappropriately by “coaching” the plaintiff before her court-ordered deposition. Kochansky at that time was 88 years old.

Earlier this month, the diocese office said Nadine is no longer with the diocese, and that he was assigned to Christ the King Catholic Church in 2003 when Kenny was pastor at the church. According to an outdated diocese Web site, which appears to be from 2005, Nadine at one time was associate pastor, or second in charge behind Kenny, at Christ the King.

In his opposition to sealing the case, Liebrander states that courts in the United States have “time and time again” recognized the importance of keeping court records open to the public, and that the defendants must show that “secretness overcomes this presumption.”

The motion also states that Kenny and the diocese “appear” to want the case sealed to avoid humiliation, but that “embarrassment” is not sufficient reason to seal court records.

The motion states, “Given the high degree of trust reposed in the church and its priests, it is particularly important to the public’s right of access to public records.”

Contact reporter Frank Geary at fgeary @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0277.

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