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Bleak House

After more than a decade, a local family is still locked in a battle over alleged abuse. Will a lawsuit bring this case to an end?

Michael Clark, of Moon Township, and his siblings have sued their father in civil court over alleged abuse they say they suffered as children.
Michael Clark, of Moon Township, and his siblings have sued their father in civil court over alleged abuse they say they suffered as children.

One of the happiest days in Michael Clark's life, he says, came in 2001, when his parents separated: It meant, he realized, that his father wouldn't be coming home anymore.

For years until that point, Michael and his three younger siblings contend, they'd lived in fear of Michael's father, Dr. Kevin Clark.

"It got to the point that it was just a way of life," says Michael, who was 14 when his parents split. "My brother and my sisters and I would cry whenever my mother would leave the house because it just turned into a war zone. ... You would just keep to yourself and pray he didn't call for you."

Through his attorneys, Kevin Clark denies ever abusing his children. And no one has accused him of doing so after 2001. But in some sense, the Clark family has still never truly left the Moon Township home they once shared.

Nor have they escaped the courthouse. At least, never for very long.

Over the past 12 years, Kevin and Valette Clark have fought over support payments, over visitation rights, over claims of child abuse. There have been custody hearings and criminal proceedings. A dispute about child support is pending before the state Supreme Court.

And it's not over. In 2007, Michael, then 20, sued his father in hopes of "mak[ing] him pay for what he did to me."

Such a lawsuit is unusual. "It's very rare to see a case like this," says Jill Engle, a professor of family law at Penn State University.

Michael Clark's lawsuit accuses his father of behavior ranging from verbal mistreatment to sexual abuse. The Clarks' three younger children later filed lawsuits of their own. (Michael Clark agreed to speak on the record for this story, but his siblings — two sisters and a brother — declined. City Paper does not identify the names of victims in cases of alleged sexual assault.) Together, the suits claim that the alleged abuse has caused a range of lasting injuries including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as some chronic physical pain.

Some of the allegations were part of a 2005 criminal case. Several criminal charges based on those allegations were dismissed in a preliminary hearing that year; Kevin Clark later pleaded "no contest" to lesser offenses. His lawyers deny the claims made in the current lawsuits.

"I feel very badly for the suffering that all of the people involved in this case have gone through," says Ed Flynn, one of Kevin Clark's attorneys. "But it is reprehensible to accuse Kevin Clark of these things that I know he could not do. And it is unfair to lay the blame for all of this solely at his feet."

Michael Clark also finds fault with Kathleen Mulligan, a widely respected Allegheny County judge.

It was Mulligan, who presides in the county's family court, who handled the Clarks' divorce. And it was Mulligan who left in place Kevin Clark's unsupervised visits with his children — even as he was facing criminal charges related to their allegations of abuse. It is Mulligan who wrote an opinion casting doubt on those allegations. Now, it is Mulligan presiding over the Clark children's lawsuits — suits they filed, they say, partly because of frustration over those earlier court battles.

"Here we are, back in front of Judge Mulligan, the one person who could have ended this all years ago," Michael Clark says. "Nothing involving my father has gone well for us."

When Valette Majors first met Kevin Clark, at the University of Pittsburgh in 1982, the picture looked brighter. Val was a singer and Kevin a pianist, Valette Clark recalls, and they performed together around the city. (Through his attorneys, Kevin Clark declined comment for this story.) They began dating in 1984, and in 1985 moved to St. Louis together, so Kevin could attend medical school. They were married later that year, eventually returning to Pittsburgh so Kevin Clark could serve an internship. He currently works in the area as an ophthalmologist in private practice.

By August 1987, the Clarks had their first child, Michael; two girls and a boy would follow in the next seven years. But their Moon Township home "was not a peaceful house," Michael Clark's lawsuit contends.

Among other allegedly abusive behaviors, three of the lawsuits allege that Kevin Clark held his children in midair from a second-floor banister in the home.

"He would hold me over the banister by my knees and he would let me go and then catch me by my ankles," Michael Clark recalls. "It scared the shit out of me, and he would be laughing."

Michael Clark's lawsuit, much like the others, alleges his father "terroriz[ed] his family" in other ways. For example, it alleges that in 1999, Kevin Clark had three of the children lie down on the floor, and "told them that the situation was similar to a recent robbery where the victims were murdered." Kevin Clark, the complaint alleges, told them "‘you won't know when it's comin',' implying that he might kill them then and there."

Kevin Clark's own legal filings deny the accusation, as well as other claims of abuse. The filings acknowledge that he referred to Michael as "psycho son" and "faggot," but deny "that these references were physically or psychologically abusive." As for the balcony allegations, in a 2005 preliminary hearing, Kevin Clark's then-lawyer, Robert Stewart, contended that Kevin Clark was "a father goofing around [who] has control of [his children] and brings them back in." Stewart likened the situation to "a father toss[ing] his kid in the air" or "letting them ride on their shoulders" because "they could always fall off."

In any event, says attorney Ed Flynn, if any of the alleged incidents did occur, they were only mistakes made by a young father that "don't rise to the level of child abuse."

According to a 2005 written opinion that is an exhibit in Michael Clark's civil lawsuit, Judge Mulligan took the allegations seriously. She wrote that after a pair of 2002 custody hearings, she allowed Kevin Clark "only supervised visits with the ... two younger children" — a decision "based upon the testimony at the two hearings." While sex-abuse allegations were not raised at those hearings, a psychologist, Dr. Mark King, had conducted a psychological evaluation of Kevin Clark, and Mulligan wrote that he found the father's conduct "was extremely inappropriate and was clearly psychological abuse and probably physical abuse as well." Still, Mulligan wrote, "King testified that father did not have the characteristics of a sexual abuser."

"These kids have suffered," says Val Clark. "I feel guilt about not leaving him earlier every day." But "My father was old-school. He told me, ‘You married him, you have to make it work,' and I tried."

"I know people wonder why we lived like that, but it's a delicate dance to get out of that bad situation," she adds. And "when we did leave, we went to family court and we expected to be protected and we weren't."

The case was assigned to Mulligan, who came with plenty of positive recommendations. In 2000, when the county bar association ranked Allegheny County judges for impartiality, temperament, diligence and legal ability, Mulligan ranked either among the top 10 or close to it in each category. But as the years wore on, Val Clark began mistrusting Mulligan — and other aspects of the judicial process.

When Kevin Clark first sought visitation rights with his children, Mulligan initially ordered that the visits be supervised by the Parental Stress Center, an East Liberty family-support agency. But in 2004, Kevin Clark sought to have the visits be unsupervised — just himself and his children. Mulligan agreed. As she later wrote in an opinion, staffers had upbeat assessments of the supervised visits. "[W]hile the children were legitimately afraid of father because of his past conduct," Mulligan added, unsupervised visits were warranted "given father's progress and the fact that the visits had been going well."

But after the unsupervised visits began, accusations began surfacing that had previously received little attention: that Kevin Clark had been sexually abusive as well.

The earliest allegation of sex abuse seems to have surfaced during King's evaluation in 2002, though accounts vary as to how the accusation arose.

According to court records, King's recollection is that while he was evaluating Kevin Clark, Val Clark told him about an incident in which she'd allegedly caught Kevin holding Michael, threatening to insert a broomstick in his anus. But as Mulligan recounted the history in her opinion, King testified that "none of the children told [King] about such an incident themselves" even though they "did talk in great detail" about other alleged abuse. "Because it was a parent who relayed the information and not a child," Mulligan wrote, King did not report the matter to authorities.

Both Val and Michael Clark, however, say that's not how it happened. Michael Clark says he did tell King of the abuse; Val says Dr. King told her about a second incident. As Mulligan puts it, "Mother testified that Dr. King told her that Michael reported the sexual abuse to him in 2002 and upon learning this, Dr. King confronted her about what happened."

"I couldn't believe it at first," Val Clark now says. "It was the most devastating day of my life."

But court records show that Clark's then-attorney, Daniel Glasser, didn't raise the allegations in 2002. Nor did Val Clark mention it during her own courtroom testimony prior to 2004.

In a 2006 appeal of Mulligan's custody decision, a new attorney for Val Clark wrote that Glasser "advised her that they did not need to delve into Father's past sexual assaults because Father had ‘admitted to enough on the record' to justify an award of supervised visitation. Further, Pennsylvania law imposed no requirement upon Mother to raise those issues at that time." (Glasser says he is "prohibited" from discussing the issue, citing attorney-client privilege. Kevin Clark's lawyers are seeking to have the privilege waived, so they can question Glasser about the allegation.)

The appeal adds that raising further abuse allegations served "no useful purpose" in 2002, "because supervised visitation was ordered and because the children were protected." Too, the appeal asserted, alleged sex abuse is "a particularly difficult issue to address with children at younger ages." In all, the complaint read, Val Clark was acting on advice that was "not unreasonable."

(The appeal was rejected by the state's Superior Court, on the grounds that it was filed too late.)

But the accusation surfaced again in 2004, when Val Clark challenged the unsupervised visits awarded to Kevin Clark. This time, the accusation prompted an investigation by the county's office for Children, Youth and Families. As Mulligan later wrote, the agency's investigation "did not reveal substantial evidence of sexual abuse or exploitation" and was "unable to determine that [the abuse allegation] was credible."

Flynn says that finding helps prove the charges were baseless. "There were a lot of people who came in contact with this family during this case," Flynn says. "If they had heard about allegations of sexual abuse then they would have been mandated to report it." That didn't happen here, he says.

In legal filings, Kevin Clark's attorneys contend that Val Clark, out of "bitterness" and "dissatisfaction" with child-support payments, has "continued to fabricate incidents of sexual abuse." Filings add that Michael Clark has Asperger's syndrome and is thus "particularly susceptible to [her] suggestions." (Michael Clark denies having Asperger's.)

"Those kids' names are on the lawsuits," Flynn says, "but she's the one controlling the direction of the litigation."

"All I've ever tried to do is protect my children," Val Clark says.

"They've claimed this from the beginning, that I learned this from my mom, that she somehow brainwashed us," Michael Clark says. "But I was there. My brother and sisters were there."

Moon Township police, at least, believed it. After an officer attended a November 2004 forensic interview at Children's Hospital with three of the Clarks' children and their mother, police compiled an affidavit summarizing the children's allegations. Among the accusations, according to that affidavit: Michael Clark charged that his father had "attempted to assault him two times in a sexual manner with a foreign object" when Michael was between the ages of 12 and 13. While the affidavit alleges his mother interrupted the broomstick assault, he later testified that another child witnessed the second incident, which he said might have involved a curtain rod.

Another child also accused Kevin Clark of an assault with a broomstick.

Kevin Clark was charged with offenses including criminal attempt to commit involuntary sexual intercourse with a child, and unlawful restraint. While former deputy prosecutor Daniel Cuddy says he can't remember specifics of the case, he says in an email that "there was definitely enough [evidence] to support it or I wouldn't have prosecuted it."

According to the transcript of the May 2005 preliminary hearing, however, Michael Clark testified he couldn't remember whether he'd actually been penetrated during the second incident. But his father had violated him with his fingers while Michael was fully dressed, in the car, he said. "I think he likes to think of these things as a joke," he testified.

Robert Stewart, Kevin Clark's attorney at the proceeding, countered by asking how his client could be charged "when he is driving with one hand supposedly trying to reach under and put his fingers in his anus?"

The other child to allege an incident involving a broomstick also struggled to recall details. According to the hearing transcript, when asked if Kevin Clark did anything with the broomstick, the child answered, "I am not positive, but I think he did."

Flynn notes that some charges were tossed out at the preliminary hearing, including some of the sex-abuse allegations. District Justice Mary Murray also dismissed the balcony charges, saying there was insufficient evidence that the behavior constituted child endangerment. "I agree it is probably not the best type of playing," she said, according to the transcript.

"At that level, you don't have to meet the highest burden to get a case moved on," Flynn says. "But the allegations by two of the [children] were tossed out. So what does that tell you?"

Charges involving two alleged assaults on Michael Clark were allowed to proceed. But Mulligan never rescinded her order allowing Kevin Clark unsupervised visitation. And one of the younger children whose charges were dismissed now says that during the preliminary hearing, "I was scared of testifying against him because I knew I had to see him again."

Some child advocates question Mulligan's decision to leave unsupervised visits intact.

"The arrest suggests that there is substantial evidence that this crime occurred. ... How could we possibly allow this possible perpetrator to have contact with the child?" wonders Frank Cervone, the executive director of Philadelphia's Support Center for Child Advocates, which represents children in court proceedings. "There is already so much pressure on a child in these situations," he adds. "Why jack that pressure up by forcing interaction with the guy who's been arrested?

"Maybe the kid testified the way he did because [the allegation] was made up," says Cervone. Then again, he says, the child might also have felt threatened. "Because there was no stay-away order from the judge, we'll never know for sure."

"You have charges filed by law enforcement, and the judge decides to overrule that," says Lundy Bancroft, a widely published author and domestic-abuse expert who spent 15 years counseling male abusers. "That's direct interference with the prosecution if the victim is forced into having tons of unsupervised visits with the accused."

When contacted, Mulligan said she was unable to comment on the case. But in a later written opinion, she noted that while "there is no doubt that father was abusive during the marriage," prior to 2004, "despite numerous opportunities, mother never before presented ... evidence of sexual abuse in court." And in a hearing in her own court, she wrote, "testimony of the children ... was vague and inconsistent"

In 2005, Mulligan had also ordered Mark King to re-evaluate Kevin Clark — and to assess Val Clark as well. This time, though, King had seen "a positive change" in the father, who "now admitted that he did some ‘really bad things,'" Mulligan's opinion says. "[F]ather strongly denied the sexual abuse but admitted almost everything else." What's more, King told her that the younger children's interaction with their father was "very positive" and they "were not in any way afraid" of him.

By contrast, Mulligan wrote, King found Val Clark to be depressed and anxious, as well as "suspicious and obsessive" — and opined that her anger "was hurting any chance for father and the two younger children to have a relationship."

Val Clark rejects that account. She filed a complaint — later closed for insufficient evidence of a violation— against King with the state, alleging that he should have reported the abuse allegation to authorities in 2002. "I believe Dr. King's negative assessment of me was an attempt to cover his tracks for not reporting the abuse," Val Clark says.

But in the end, Mulligan concluded that "Either the children have convinced themselves that the incidents took place, or they are saying that these incidents took place in order to prevent unsupervised contact with father or to endear themselves to their mother or their siblings." At Kevin Clark's request, she had already imposed a gag order and sealed the family-court case. In an October 2004 order, Mulligan sealed the court record, barred the public from courtroom proceedings, and prohibited Val Clark from "discussing with the media or any third party, any allegation of sexual abuse of the children." (The criminal case remained open.)

Val Clark, whom Mulligan has found in contempt for not doing more to encourage the children to visit with their father, has posted court documents online. She also began speaking to City Paper before the gag order was lifted this summer.

"What was happening to my children wasn't fair," she says. "And if it was happening to me, maybe it was happening to other people. I didn't feel like I could stay quiet any longer."

Deciding what's in a child's best interest, especially in families with troubled histories, is rarely easy, experts say.

Engle, the Penn State professor, says judges have "a ton of discretion" in family disputes. "The best interest of the child" is a broad standard, she says — one that "leaves a judge sometimes to struggle with making value judgments."

Mulligan's decision to maintain unsupervised visitation, Bancroft says, is "not an unusual thing to happen." In general, he says, judges put too much emphasis on "trying to maintain two-parent households even when ... one of the parents is abusive."

"Keeping both parents involved in a child's life isn't always the best thing," he adds. "But we see judges trying to force it every day."

Sal Frasca, executive director of the Children's Rights Council — a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that seeks to maintain "meaningful contact" with both parents — disagrees. Even where there are allegations of abuse or dysfunction, he says, "The best parent for a child is both parents," Frasca says. "Both parents contribute particular things to a child's growth, so the child should have the opportunity to be exposed to that."

By 2005, though, Michael and his older sister — the siblings who best remembered their parents being together — were not seeing their father at all. Disputes over visitation focused on the younger two children, and the pending criminal case.

Rather than face a trial on the sex-abuse charges, in December 2006 Kevin Clark pleaded "no contest" to three lesser counts of endangering the welfare of a child. In a "no contest" plea, a defendant accepts a sentence without asserting guilt or innocence. Judge Gerard Bigley sentenced Kevin Clark to one year of probation for each count, running concurrently.

State law defines "endangering the welfare of a child" as taking place when a parent or guardian "violat[es] a duty of care, protection or support." Kevin Clark's lawyers say the offenses to refer to the incidents in which he held his children out from the balcony (the very behavior the district judge had called "not the best type of playing").

Val Clark had another interpretation. Based on her understanding of what prosecutors had told her, she says, "I believed this could be used in any civil case and that he was convicted of sexual abuse." But the definition of endangerment does not mention sexual abuse. And a no-contest plea can't be used against a defendant in a related civil trial.

"This was supposed to be our closure, but apparently there have been no consequences for him," says Val Clark.

"It's like the Twilight Zone," Michael Clark says. "There have been so many times when we have been told that we would be protected, but it's never happened."

And so they have turned to the civil suits, which allege a range of physical and psychological abuse in 2001 or before, which contributed to long-lasting psychological and physical trauma.

But the Clark children's first order of business was trying to get Mulligan removed from the case — and again they have been frustrated.

Flynn, who requested Mulligan take the case, says he did so because she is "very familiar with the parties, the issues and the allegations, so it made absolute sense to have the case assigned to her. Besides, she will not be the ultimate decider of the facts; the jury will be."

Mulligan is up for retention on this November's ballot, and her return to the bench is recommended by the Allegheny County Bar Association. Her reputation has reached all the way to Philadelphia, where Cervone says that even if he finds some of her actions in the Clark case "a little odd," he's always heard her spoken of as a "stellar judge who is beyond impropriety."

But while Schuchardt, Michael Clark's lawyer, says Mulligan is generally fair, he argues that she should not be hearing this case because of her history with it. She has, after all, already issued opinions expressing doubt over whether sex abuse ever took place — which is a key claim likely to be argued in her courtroom.

"It is highly unusual to have a case overseen by a judge who has already rendered a written opinion on the ultimate issue," he says.

And while a jury will hand down a final verdict, Schuchardt says, "The judge will decide questions of law, which includes, crucially, what facts the jury gets to hear." For example, he says, Mulligan has ruled that testimony and prior orders from the custody case will be inadmissible.

Schuchardt asked Mulligan to recuse herself. When she refused, he appealed, but Administrative Judge W. Terrence O'Brien, too, denied the request.

In a brief order, O'Brien noted that a jury would hand down the actual verdict. Her earlier rulings "show neither bias nor the appearance of bias," he wrote.

But Cervone, for one, says judges should recuse themselves when there is "either substantive conflict of interest" or if there is "an appearance of impropriety" — an appearance that may exist "inside the minds of the parties involved." Such an appearance "will be hard for [Mulligan] to avoid" here.

The fact that a jury will ultimately decide the matter "helps insulate the case, but not entirely," Cervone adds. "Continuity should not be the primary concern here, what should be of concern is overall fairness and getting a full hearing of the facts."

Author and abuse-expert Bancroft puts the matter more succinctly:

"It's absolutely preposterous," he says. "She has already made rulings in the case."

Bancroft adds that family-court proceedings are often prone to suspicions of favoritism. That's one reason he opposes sealing records in any case.

"If a judge is going to rule, for example, that sexual abuse didn't occur, then those findings should be made public," Bancroft says. "[Sealing family court cases] is a severe violation of due process and it is protecting the court and its appointees from scrutiny."

Michael Clark's concerns are more immediate. Currently, all four children's suits are set to be consolidated for a single trial, to be held next spring.

"Even though I feel like the odds are stacked against us," says Michael Clark, "we have to push forward."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the disposition of the complaint Val Clark filed against Dr. Mark King.

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