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"Indy 500" priest accused of abuse in U.S. lawsuit

CHICAGO (Reuters) - A lawsuit filed on Thursday charges a Catholic priest known for ministering to Indy car racing drivers and celebrities with sexually abusing a neighbor boy and later trying to buy his silence.

Father Philip DeRea, whose connection to racing grew from a friendship with Mario Andretti, is alleged to have lured an 11-year-old into a long-term sexual relationship.

The suit contains graphic details of their relationship that began in 1980 when the alleged victim offered to shovel DeRea's walk.

It describes DeRea as living a "jet-setting, relatively luxurious lifestyle, traveling frequently to races around the world, saying Mass and performing marriages and baptisms for famous race car drivers and other celebrities and their families..."

DeRea was interviewed in 1996 by ABC News for its "Person of the Week" segment, and performed the marriage of actress Ashley Judd to racer Dario Franchitti. DeRea often performed mass for Indianapolis Racing League drivers.

The suit contends the unnamed plaintiff's life and marriage fell apart when memories of the abuse came flooding back five years ago.

He contacted DeRea by email last year and the suit says DeRea responded with apologies for "my misconduct" and sent a few thousand dollars while urging him to "keep all quiet."

Later, a lawyer for DeRea said the payments were rooted in their "friendship" and offered $35,000 to release all claims.

The suit seeks in excess of $75,000, plus unspecified punitive damages.

Also named in the lawsuit is the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, an Aurora, Illinois-based Catholic order. The suit contends nuns and other members of the group were at DeRea's home when he took the boy upstairs to his locked room, and were aware of, or should have known of, DeRea's behavior which included sexual relationships with other church members.

The order released a statement saying it was "saddened" by the lawsuit.

Widespread abuse scandals involving Roman Catholic priests first erupted in Boston a decade ago, and the church has paid settlements totaling some $3 billion. Pope Benedict last year called for a reexamination of the Church's message and practices to enable it to learn from the scandal.

The case is 1:11cv-02518 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

(Reporting by Andrew Stern; Editing by Eric Walsh)