Survivor of abusive Chesterfield priest shares story to spur legislative change

Published: Nov. 9, 2023 at 5:58 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 9, 2023 at 6:51 PM CST
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - When 10-year-old Jonathan Dean was sexually assaulted by his priest at Ascension parish in Chesterfield, his childhood stopped.

In adolescence, he turned to drugs and sex as an outlet to quell the post-traumatic stress disorder and to numb his pain.

Into adulthood, those addictions continued, eventually consuming his life.

It was only in 2013, more than two decades after the abuse occurred, that he was even able to remember what happened.

“Having been raped as a child has left a darkness in my soul that I can not change, and can not leave behind,” Dean said.

The rare narrative by a survivor of abuse by a member of the clergy was offered Thursday to a group of attendees and media, as now attorney Jonathan Dean seeks to raise awareness of how Missouri’s statute of limitations affects child victims of sex crimes.

“It is very common for survivors of childhood sexual assault to repress their memories,” Dean said. “That is an established scientific fact. So, it begs to question why does Missouri have any statute of limitations for legal claims arising out of childhood sexual abuse.”

Dean was assaulted in 1993. It was not until 2018 that he was able to come forward and seek damages for the pain caused by now-defrocked Rev. Gary Paul Wolken.

While his case would eventually result in the largest settlement ever to a survivor by the St. Louis Archdiocese – $1 million – the legal battle was a years-long undertaking down a difficult road.

“When most of us think of the statute of limitations, we think we have two or five or however many years it is from the time of the occurrence to file a lawsuit. It’s not that simple in cases that alleges childhood sexual abuse,” Dean said.

“Because even when us victims file a lawsuit in the time window permitted by the law, the legal team aligned with the perpetrators will aggressively misuse the statute of limitations against the victim.”

Dean said an attorney for the defendant often tries to get survivors to give answers to trick questions, or misuse other evidence against them in an effort to get the case dismissed.

“In case after case, Missouri courts have sided with the perpetrator of sexual violence and thrown credible victims, who make credible claims, out of court forever,” Dean said.

Dean asked how it is possible that a child victim can suffer for years, and then work for years to seek damages, only to see their case dismissed. One day after he had negotiated a settlement with the church, he said his case was dismissed by the courts, which were unaware mediation had ended.

“The Missouri legislature should remove all statutes of limitations for claims of childhood sexual assault. These cases need to reach trials,” Dean said. “Not be continuously dismissed on legal technicalities.”

In a response to Dean’s press conference, the Archdiocese of St. Louis issued a statement saying it treats allegations of sexual abuse with the utmost seriousness, working with authorities despite the amount of time which has passed.

The archdiocese said whether or not a lawsuit is filed, survivors of abuse may still seek and receive assistance from the church.

“In this particular case, Mr. Dean opted to engage legal representation and filed a lawsuit anonymously instead of approaching the Archdiocese directly for assistance,” the Archdiocese said. “When a lawsuit is initiated, the Archdiocese is constrained from employing its voluntary approach to addressing these issues. All communications must then occur through legal representatives and the courts.”

The archdiocese said the passage of time also creates difficulties in uncovering the truth. In Dean’s case, it was church officials who proposed a settlement despite criminal charges being not filed.

“Despite the absence of criminal charges and other mitigating factors, it was the archdiocese which proposed a settlement process with an experienced mediator through which a mutual agreement between Mr. Dean and the Archdiocese of St. Louis was reached,” the archdiocese said.

Criminal charges would come later against Wolken, He was convicted in 2002 of abusing another child, who was 8-years-old at the time. He was sentenced in February 2003 to 15 years in the Missouri Department of Corrections and was released on parole in February 2015.

Dean said despite the absence of criminal charges in his case, he was grateful to two individuals who helped him when he was younger. One was an elementary principal who testified to the misconduct she witnessed. Another was the Chesterfield detective who worked his case.

When the archdiocese, according to Dean, tried to argue in court that no one had come forward about Wolken’s abuse of student, his principal Lorie O’Conner told the court that was simply not true. She had previously reported his inappropriate contact with another student she told the archdiocese attorneys.

“Mrs. O’Conner told all the attorneys that she had had enough. That she had something to say and planned to speak her own piece,” Dean said.

Dean said while the St. Louis County prosecutors did not pursue charges in his case, that did not sit well with Chesterfield detective Don Brody. The detective took Dean’s report at midnight when he was finally able to confide in a law enforcement officer.

Later, after learning charges would not be filed, Brody reached out to Dean to tell him he was sorry.

“He told me he was sorry that happened to me and he considered the rape of a child a terrible evil,” Dean said. “And he didn’t know why the prosecutor’s office wasn’t following up on my complaint, but that he was there for me.”