MIAMI -- A runaway teen in search of guidance, Andres Susaña spent his days hanging around Little Haiti’s Keystone Trailer Park, growing to trust the Catholic priest who cruised the area offering advice and free meals.
But the gifts of clothing and sneakers handed out by the Rev. Neil Doherty soon evolved into illicit offerings of cocaine, marijuana and alcohol, and eventually crossed the line into sexual abuse, Susaña told a Miami-Dade jury during a court hearing this week.
In a landmark decision reached Thursday, jurors awarded the sexual assault victim an unprecedented $100 million in a lawsuit filed against Doherty. The priest, retired from the Archdiocese of Miami, has a long list of accusers saying he used his position of power to drug and rape them when they were boys.
This is the first case of more than 20 filed against Doherty that has reached a jury -- dozens of others have been settled out of court for around $50,000. Even more uncommon was the fact that Doherty, not the archdiocese, was named as the defendant in the case.
“This sends the message that sexual predators in our community won’t be tolerated,” Susaña said at press conference held Thursday at his attorney’s office.
Nervously shaking his legs below the table while speaking, Susaña, now 40, said he has battled depression ever since the alleged abuse occurred in 1986. He was 14 at the time. It was only last year that he decided to come forward with his story, confiding in his mother.
During one incident described in court records, Susaña, who now lives in Michigan, said the priest took him to a motel room on Biscayne Boulevard. Inside, he witnessed a partially dressed older man kissing and fondling a young boy. Disturbed and alarmed by the video-camera on a tripod filming the scene, Susaña darted out of the room.
“That man for me is like the devil,” Susaña said. “He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Jessica Arbour, one of the lawyers representing Susaña, said her firm, in an unusual move, decided to explicitly name Doherty in the lawsuit, filed earlier this year.
“This was a chance for (Susaña) to be empowered and hold Father Doherty personally accountable for what he did,” Arbour said.
The dozens of other cases filed by Arbour’s law firm have sued the Archdiocese of Miami, accusing it of covering up Doherty’s abuse and putting him in a position where he could further abuse boys.
Rosa Quiroz, media coordinator for the Archdiocese of Miami, said the church would not comment on the case, because the lawsuit was specifically filed against Doherty.
The jury awarded Susaña $10 million in compensatory damages and $90 million in punitive damages – fines that are used to punish the defendant and to deter other people from committing the same crime in the future.
“Even when they don’t have a nickel, a verdict like this can be extraordinarily validating for the victim,” said David Clohessy of St. Louis, national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
It remains unclear how much of the $100 million Susaña will see. Doherty, 68, is in a Broward County jail awaiting trial on another case involving sexual abuse against a minor, and may not have much in the way of assets.
Jeff Hermann, an attorney also representing Susaña, said the jury’s decision sets a benchmark for future cases.
“Now we have a measure about what a jury thinks a victim should receive,” Herman said. “It sends a message ... we hope the message this sends can protect other children in the future.”
Thursday’s verdict also came on the same day that two new victims filed a negligence lawsuit against the archdiocese, seeking compensation in excess of $5 million for alleged abuses at the hands of Doherty. Herman and Arbour are also representing those victims, who are now 50 and 37 years old.