Diocese Seeks a Dismissal of Count
Albany -- Sexual Abuse Victim's Lawsuit under Racketeering Law Alleges Church Figures Conspired to Prevent Complaints
By Andrew Tilghman
February 4, 2003
The Albany diocese's legal team is trying to block a sexual abuse victim's efforts to sue under federal anti-racketeering law, a potentially devastating threat that could expose the church to grave financial danger.
The lawsuit filed last fall claims a known pedophile priest, the Rev. John Bertolucci, and the diocese's chancellor, the Rev. Kenneth Doyle, conspired to intimidate the victim from lodging a formal complaint.
Dioceses around the country are facing lawsuits under the U.S. Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organizations law, also known as RICO, which was originally designed to target mobsters and organized crime.
In October, Doyle issued a public statement calling the local lawsuit "pure fiction." But in their first formal response to the $450,000 lawsuit, the priests' attorneys did not dispute the facts, or other less-damaging claims such as harassment and negligence, court papers show.
Instead, the church's attorneys focused their first motion on the single element that invokes the federal law, asking a judge to dismiss the RICO count before going any further.
The motion is part of the defense "litigation strategy," said Albany attorney James Potter, who is representing Bertolucci. Potter had no further comment on the court papers, and a spokesman for the diocese declined comment.
RICO is a strong legal weapon, designed to encourage people to take on powerful or intimidating institutions that might be involved in criminal activity, said Albany Law School professor Dan Moriarty. The law requires courts to triple any jury award and losing defendants to pay all legal costs.
"This has got to be matter of concern for the church," Moriarty said. "It could bankrupt most any diocese."
What the victims "are trying to show is that the people at the top of the system -- the bishops and their principle associates -- conducted the affairs of the diocese in a way that obstructed justice," Moriarty said.
The church's motion was filed Dec. 6. The victim's attorney, John Aretakis, filed a response on Friday, saying Bertolucci might be a convicted sex offender were it not for "the protection and conspiratorial actions of his employers."
The lawsuit, pending before state Supreme Court Justice Thomas J. McNamara, was filed on behalf of a victim listed as John Doe. The man, who is now a State Police trooper, said Bertolucci sexually abused him several times between 1976 and 1979.
After the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a policy of zero-tolerance for pedophile priests, Bishop Howard Hubbard removed Bertolucci and five other priests from active ministry and acknowledged that the diocese had paid out more than $2.3 million to victims of sexual abuse over a 25-year period. Bertolucci, a former vice chancellor, admitted to having sex with boys as young as 12 during the 1970s.
The lawsuit does not seek damages for the sexual abuse itself, which is out of reach from civil penalties under the state's three-year statute of limitations.
But on Sept. 11, 2002, Bertolucci allegedly called the man's parents, who are still active church members, and asked them to speak to their son and stop him from coming forward, according to the lawsuit.
"I did not have sexual intercourse with your son, I only fondled him," Bertolucci allegedly said, according to the lawsuit filed in state Supreme Court.
"I was very proud of your son, the way he repeatedly fought off my sexual advances most of the time. I want you to know that I still love your son after all these years," Bertolucci said, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also alleges that Doyle, who is a lawyer, had called Bertolucci at his Catskill home to tell him about the man's upcoming meeting with the church attorney and encouraged the priest to call the parents. Longtime church attorney Michael Costello is representing Doyle.
The federal RICO statute has been successfully applied to a variety of organizations, including anti-abortion groups and white supremacists, but many lawsuits lodged against the Catholic Church remain unresolved.
In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the nation's largest, a racketeering suit filed on behalf of four victims accused Cardinal Roger Mahony of protecting a child-molesting priest who spent more than a dozen years under his supervision.
Minnesota attorney Jeffrey Anderson last year filed a RICO lawsuit against the Vatican, a former bishop and four dioceses, accusing them of hiding the transgressions of a "web of predator priests" whose sexual misconduct spans at least three decades.
An effort to invoke the RICO statute in a clergy sex-abuse lawsuit in New Jersey was dismissed in 1995.
The RICO case is one of three lawsuits filed in Albany in recent months that fault the diocese for the way it dealt with victims of sexual abuse who came forward last year. One suit accuses Hubbard and a church therapist, Sister Anne Bryan Smollin, of manipulating a man to stop him from hiring an attorney. Another suit claims the diocese deliberately invites victims to meetings at the Pastoral Center on North Main Avenue, which is filled with crucifixes, pictures of priests and other church relics, in an effort to intimidate them from filing complaints.
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