The Rev. Michael Sprauer III
Bill Long 5/18/07
Understanding the Ambiguity of the Case
All attorneys pray and wish for the "smoking gun" in their case, i.e., that piece of evidence that will be so convincing, so utterly incontrovertible, that a jury will just roll over and give their clients millions of dollars. Occasional screaming headlines after trials are over give the impression that such incontrovertible evidence was supplied. In fact, things are almost much more "chancy" than that. Evidence isn't always clear, and juries have to handle conflicting testimony. They look not just to the words spoken but to the "demeanor" of witnesses, the conduct of attorneys and whatever subjective factors may impress them that day.
Most civil cases in modern America never make it to trial. Indeed, the latest figures I have seen are that more than 90% of the civil docket settles before trial. I was involved in a mediation session recently in a civil case, and so I know some of the dynamics involved in settling cases. On the one hand the defendant (who is alleged to have done or permitted something wrong) is not going to want to see its "good name" dragged through the dirt in a public forum by credible people. Thus, it has an incentive to settle. And, the plaintiff also has an incentive to settle. After all, lawsuits are not predictable things; trials are very expensive; most personal injury attorneys work on contingency, and so they may want to minimize the time and effort that will go into trial and, finally, many plaintiffs become weary after about two years and just want this "thing" to be over.
The Ambiguity of the Sprauer Case--Klettke's Testimony
Though the Multnomah County jury awarded a total of $1.385 million to two plaintiffs, their attorney had asked for $4 million in damages for each. Thus, they were awared about 1/6 of what they asked. In addition, there was a third plaintiff that took home nothing. So the jury had to make credibility determinations among plaintiffs and then weigh how much they were injured. The fact that one of the three got nothing gives us a window into the phenomenon of priest sexual abuse lawsuits and lawsuits in general. Sometimes plaintiffs are less than credible. Sometimes they make allegations on the basis of a "me-too" phenomenon or even a "get rich quick" type-of-thinking. That doesn't mean that nothing happened to them; it does mean that the jury thinks that they hadn't made a case that the particular defendant sexually harmed them.
Take the case of plaintiff Norman Klettke, Jr. in this case. He is 44 and claimed in his complaint and deposition that Sprauer had abused him three times in 1978 at Maclaren, once in a detention unit (D-1) and twice in a broom closet at the auditorium of the school/home. I read relevant portions of Klettke's deposition online because my local paper, the Salem Statesman Journal has posted them on its website. Kudos to the SJ for doing this. What was striking to me about his testimony were two things: (1) the way that the allegations were quite vague and almost a little too much to be believed (that Sprauer, within a few minutes of meeting him in a detention cell, had both of them masturbating each other); and (2) the way that Klettke's testimony didn't square with known historical details. That is, he only went to Maclaren in 1978, when he was 14 or 15, but records show that Sprauer stopped working for Maclaren in 1975. Of course he could have gone back there, and he admits going back to Maclaren once later in 1975 to show the new priest/chaplain around the campus, but there was no credible testimony that Sprauer, a full-time chaplain at the Oregon State Correctional Institution 25 miles away at that time, was even on the campus of Maclaren in 1978.
So, Klettke's testimony wasn't credible. No harm comes to him by his allegations lacking in credibility against Sprauer (Is that right?) Maybe he was indeed sexually abused by someone at Maclaren at some time, but it apparently wasn't Sprauer.
The Testimony of Randy Sloan
Sloan is now 49, and he alleged that Sprauer had two instances of sexual contact with him in 1975. Sloan's deposition testimony reads much more convincingly than Klettke's but even one of the two instances he relates was confuted at trial. The two instances he relates with Sprauer are as follows: (1) daily visits to him by Sprauer for three days while Sloan was in the detention facility at Maclaren. The detention facility is to be differentiated from the "cabins" where the boys normally lived. Each of these visits became more intimate, Sloan alleged, with the last ending with hands on the other's private parts through (but not under) clothing [Indeed, it may have been the more "restrained" testimony of Sloan on this that made him more credible. Sprauer, according to Sloan, would gradually try to win his confidence, becoming slightly more intimate on each visit]; (2) an experience of almost forced oral sex where, allegedly, Sprauer pulled off on a dirt road and told Sloan that he (Sloan) would have to give him (Sprauer) oral sex. This was on the occasion, Sloan said, of Sprauer's driving him from Woodburn to Aumsville (about 35 miles) to attend the funeral of his Sloan's sister.
Somehow this story also didn't seem to "ring true" to me as I read it. Sprauer might have been a predator, but it probably is unlikely that he would so blatantly take advantage of an extremely distraught person when he was taking him to his sister's funeral, by forcing himself sexually upon him. Indeed, at trial it came out that another priest, Sprauer's successor, had actually driven Sloan to the funeral. No allegations were made about Sloan. So, what is a jury to make of this one?
Sloan's first story has all the markings of a credible story. Sprauer only said in his defense that he never went into the cells to talk with the boys; he would talk to them through the narrow openings in the doors. That, indeed, doesn't sound credible to me, especially in the period of the early 1970s and the authority that religious figures had at places like this. In addition, Sprauer's testimony, and Department of Corrections records, have it that he left Maclaren at the end of January 1975, and Sloan alleged this act in detention several months later. However, the jury probably believed that before the "transition" to the next priest was finished at Maclaren, that Sprauer probably continued his services there. Hence, Sloan's story was probably a zinger for the plaintiffs.
Now I hope you see some of the ambiguities in a case such as this. The deposition of the third plaintiff, Robert Paul, was not easy to read online--the "underlined" sections actually appeared as "blacked out," and so I couldn't read all the descriptions of the allegations against Sprauer. But what I could decipher is consistent with Sloan's testimony, especially about the way that Sprauer would gradually try to win the boys' trust. And, Paul's allegations were for a time that Sprauer was unquestionably the chaplain at Maclaren.
By the time the jury heard all the testimony, it could easily have conclude that Sprauer had abused his position of power by exploiting the boys' vulnerability (they were in isolated circumstances at the school/home) and traumatizing at least two boys by various levels of intimacy with them. The demeanor of Sprauer on the stand, while dignified and impressive in person, was probably perceived as distant and cold, even unfeeling, at trial. Thus, the jury was probably ready to "throw the book at him." All a plaintiff's lawyer needs in a situation like this is a few credible stories. At least half of them didn't pan out, but it is the ones that did that created the verdict.