Priest Abuse Suit Is Allowed
Judge OKs Way around Statute of Limitation
By David Crumm and Patricia Montemurri
Detroit Free Press [Detroit MI]
June 20, 2003
In a ruling that could open the floodgates to lawsuits by countless people alleging sexual abuse by Catholic priests, a Wayne County judge accepted Thursday an innovative legal argument allowing a decades-old claim to get around Michigan's statute of limitation.
"What happened today could be very, very important," attorney Cyril Weiner of Southfield said after the ruling by Wayne County Circuit Judge John Gillis. Weiner represents a man referred to in court papers as John Doe, who says he was abused by the Rev. Robert Burkholder while his family attended Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Detroit in the 1970s.
"As far as I know, this is the first time a lower court in Michigan has adopted this legal theory of fraudulent concealment in this kind of case," Weiner said.
In Gillis' court, Weiner argued that the Archdiocese of Detroit was aware of Burkholder's abuse and became a partner in his crimes by fraudulently concealing complaints and moving him from parish to parish. Until now, a number of people who were sexually abused as minors by priests have been unable to file claims against the church in Michigan, because state laws bar such actions after decades have passed.
Weiner's client is suing Burkholder and the archdiocese.
Archdiocesan records indicate that, in the 1950s and '60s, Burkholder was moved through a half-dozen local parishes. In 1970, he was reassigned as a hospital chaplain, a post he held for the final decade of his career before he was given sick leave in 1981 and early retirement in 1984. But the priest was never closely monitored and befriended children in local parishes where he was active.
Burkholder, now in his 80s, was labeled Michigan's worst pedophile priest by Wayne County Prosecutor Michael Duggan last year. In the 1990s, Burkholder admitted to Catholic officials that he had molested nearly two dozen boys during his career. He spent 30 days in jail in November for sexual misconduct in the 1980s.
The archdiocese is expected to appeal Gillis' ruling. If the Michigan Court of Appeals upholds it, Weiner said, "then the statute of limitations would be on hold for a period of time, now that the harmed individuals have discovered the concealed wrongdoing."
Gillis and archdiocesan attorney Thomas Van Dusen declined to comment. Burkholder's attorney, Irving Tukel, could not be reached.
Appeals Court Judge Michael Talbot, who also serves as the head of Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida's board of review to combat abuse, said that he is disqualifying himself from the case. "It's not appropriate for me to talk about an active civil matter," he said.
At least two lawsuits were filed previously against Burkholder. In one, filed in 1994, church lawyers succeeded in having the claim dismissed under the statute of limitation. However, after a 1995 lawsuit was filed, the archdiocese agreed to one of the largest cash settlements it has made in such cases, although church officials have declined to give the amount.
Joe Maher, a Redford Township businessman who cofounded a support group for accused priests, said Thursday that Burkholder is ailing from a dementia-like illness and is living in a monitored facility in Michigan. Burkholder had lived in Hawaii for most of the last 15 years.
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