Abuse Lawsuit Dismissed against Former Palm Beach Bishop
[Two Other Suits Allowed to Go Forward]
By Peter Franceschina firstname.lastname@example.org
Sun-Sentinel [Palm Beach FL]
April 21, 2003
A little more than a year after Bishop Anthony O'Connell of the Diocese of Palm Beach resigned amid admissions he had improper sexual contact with young seminarians, one of the lawsuits filed against him has been thrown out while attorneys still are pursuing two other cases.
The attorneys for one former seminarian who sued O'Connell in Missouri, where O'Connell taught before being named a bishop, are hailing a recent decision by Judge David Darnold that allowed one of the cases to go forward.
In March, the judge dismissed one of the claims against the Diocese of Jefferson City, Mo., but let another claim stand that accuses the diocese of negligence in its supervision of O'Connell.
"It was a very significant ruling in Missouri," said Minnesota attorney Patrick Noaker, who represents all three seminarians in their cases against O'Connell.
"[The judge] decided the church has the same duty as any entity in Missouri to protect kids. The beauty of this approach is the church will be in the position to have liability. To avoid liability, they are going to put into place measures to supervise these priests better. They are going to have to, and as a society that is what we want."
Noaker said the ruling runs counter to a 1997 Missouri Supreme Court decision in which the justices found that the First Amendment -- the separation of church and state -- protected religious institutions from negligence claims involving the supervision of clergy.
The church has been shielded from negligence suits in Missouri and several other states because of similar court rulings, but that is changing as thousands of suits around the country are being brought against the Catholic Church, Noaker said.
"These rulings are falling by the minute," he said.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled last year -- in reversing two lower court opinions -- that the First Amendment does not provide immunity to religious institutions from being sued for the negligent hiring and supervision of clergy.
O'Connell, bishop in the Diocese of Palm Beach for three years, has been accused only of sexual wrongdoing that allegedly took place years ago in Missouri.
The attorneys defending the Diocese of Jefferson City and O'Connell say the Missouri ruling has little significance, and they expressed confidence the suits ultimately would be dismissed because the allegations are outside the statute of limitations.
"Mr. Noaker can read anything he wants into it. The fact that he did not get blown out of court on every count is not surprising," said St. Louis attorney Edward Goldenhersh, who represents the Jefferson City diocese.
"I need to win on the statute of limitations, and I intend to win on the statute of limitations."
Chicago attorney James Geoly, who represents O'Connell, said it is too early in the case for the judge to dismiss the case because all of the issues haven't been thoroughly explored.
Once defense lawyers have taken more depositions and reviewed more documents, they said they plan to file a motion for summary judgment, which asks a judge to dismiss a suit because it has no legal standing.
"It was clear [from the judge's ruling] he fully expected a summary judgment motion," Geoly said.
One case dismissed against O'Connell was thrown out in September, when Judge Mark Seigel ruled that the former seminarian waited too long to bring his claims.
Some of the allegations in that case involved racketeering claims that the church covered up its wrongdoing in the supervision of priests.
Noaker said that decision is now being appealed.
In the third case against O'Connell, Darnold threw out the racketeering allegations in March but allowed the other negligence counts to stand.
"The counts [Noaker] wanted a splash with were knocked out," Goldenhersh said.
"He is going to have a hard time defending against what we will be presenting in the way of further motions."
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