White County man who says priest molested him files lawsuit against Diocese of Little Rock, two churches

Great Seal of Arkansas in a court room in Washington County. Thursday, June 21, 2018,

A White County man who says he was molested when he was a 10-year-old altar boy 42 years ago by a now-deceased Catholic priest filed suit Thursday against the Diocese of Little Rock and two churches where Richard Patrick Davis was pastor.

A Pocahontas native, Davis died in May 2020 at age 83 after 57 years as a priest in Arkansas, serving past the traditional retirement age of 65. He spent his last 14 years as the pastor of St. Boniface Church in New Dixie and, while assigned to St. Patrick Church in North Little Rock in the mid-to-late 1960s, taught religion at Mount St. Mary Academy and was the chaplain at St. Vincent Infirmary.

His obituary in the Arkansas Catholic newspaper states he "created the Teen Aged Religious Education program, which helped teens in the Arkansas River Valley grow in their faith." A Knights of Columbus obituary describes Davis as "The Pope of Perry County" who performed more than 700 baptisms, 500 funerals and 500 weddings.

In the 20-page lawsuit, the White County man is anonymous, identified as John Doe, and names two churches as co-defendants, St. James in Searcy and St. Albert in Heber Springs, where Davis was pastor from 1979 to 1983.

According to the suit, Doe's best friend got him interested in the Catholic faith in 1981, taking him to Mass and catechism classes and other church-related activities at the Heber Springs church. After being baptized as a Roman Catholic, he became an altar boy serving under Davis that same year at the age of 10.

"[He] developed great respect, admiration, reverence for, and trust in the Roman Catholic Church and its agents, including the Archbishop/Bishop, and [Father] Davis," the suit states. "As a result of [Doe] being a minor, and by the Defendant's undertaking the care and guidance of the then-vulnerable [child], he was uniquely vulnerable, without his parents and incapable of self-protection."

Doe says he was groped twice by Davis during a weeklong training program for altar boys that involved him and another boy staying with Davis at his quarters at the Searcy church. The suit says Davis came into Doe's room, closed the door and had Doe sit on his lap, then unzipped the boy's pants and fondled him. That same night, Doe woke to find Davis standing over him, fondling him.

Doe quit the church soon after because he was afraid of being alone with Davis and felt "guilt and shame" over what the priest did to him, according to the lawsuit. He started getting into trouble at school, his grades suffered, and he began to abuse alcohol and drugs, the lawsuit states. He also began to get in trouble with law enforcement as a teen and young adult, the suit states.

Doe is being represented by attorney Michelle Eddington of the Houston, Texas-based McDonald Worley personal-injury law firm, which has offices in Florida; Washington, D.C.; Las Vegas; and New York.

He is suing the diocese and churches for vicarious liability for Davis' actions along with claims for negligence, negligent supervision and retention of an employee, failure to protect Doe, and premises liability.

Doe's lawyers did not respond to an email requesting comment, and a spokesman for the diocese said the lawsuit is the first time anyone has made allegations against Davis.

"The Diocese of Little Rock's first notice of this complaint was when it was filed on April 20th. There have been no previous claims made against the Diocese of Little Rock based on any alleged acts on the part of the late Father Richard Davis," said Dennis Lee, chancellor for administrative affairs. "With this being a matter of ongoing litigation, further comment will be reserved for a later time."

In his complaint, Doe asks Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herb Wright to hold a jury trial to rule on compensatory and punitive damages for his emotional distress, pain and suffering, medical expenses and lost wages, among other things, along with his legal fees.

While at St. Boniface, Davis also served St. Francis of Assisi Church in Little Italy and St. Elizabeth Church in Oppelo, according to an August 2013 profile in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette marking Davis' 50th anniversary as a priest.

A graduate of St. John Seminary in Little Rock, and ordained in 1963, Davis told the newspaper then that he was inspired to join the Catholic clergy as a boy growing up in Jonesboro by the priest at his church.

"My pastor [when I was] a kid was an older priest. There was just something about him -- his love for people -- that I respected," Davis told the newspaper. "I also respected the way he treated us kids. I served as his altar boy. I believe that had a big influence on me. I just thought becoming a priest would allow me to serve people, to help people."

He said he was a junior in high school when he told his parents he wanted to go to seminary.

"They said, 'If that's what God wants you to do, then that's what we want you to do.' There was no pressure, and that felt good."

Asked about Pope Francis, who had just been elected pontiff six months earlier, Davis described the church leader as "refreshing" and said he hoped to meet him and shake his hand, like he had met Pope John Paul II several years earlier.

Davis told Arkansas Catholic that same year he had learned the value of listening and having a sense of humor.

"I think [listening is] important. The ability to listen to someone who wants to talk to you, I don't think we do enough of that," he said. "People will give you a headache if you let them, so you either have to meet them with a sense of humor or two aspirin."

At his funeral mass, Davis' dedication to the youth of the church was recognized.

"For these many years, coming over to Sacred Heart [School] every Thursday to teach the juniors and seniors, one of the things Richard did so beautifully was bringing the lessons he learned from his own learning curve into the classroom to help very young disciples discover their learning curve," one speaker recounted. "Because all of his priestly life, he was involved in one way or another in education wherever he was."

Davis' first assignment was Holy Redeemer Church in El Dorado in 1963. He was at St. Patrick in North Little Rock from 1964 to 1970, followed by six years at Christ the King Church and St. Leo Church in Hartford, according to the lawsuit. He was next assigned to St. Elizabeth in Eureka Springs from 1976 to 1979 before being sent to St. James in Searcy and St. Albert in Heber Springs.

He was next moved in 1983 to St. Paul in Pocahontas, then transferred in 1987 to St. John the Baptist in Engelberg, St. Joseph the Worker in Corning, and St. George in Knobel. From 1986 to 1996, he was at St. Mary in Paragould before his final assignment to St. Boniface/St. Elizabeth/St. Francis of Assisi.