Still Waiting for Judgment Day

By Rita Ciolli
Newsday [Long Island NY]
October 26, 2003

While an increasing number of Roman Catholic dioceses around the country this year have agreed to settle the legal claims of victims who were sexually abused by priests, lawsuits involving Long Island priests are just starting to work their way through the court system.

Lawyers representing the Diocese of Rockville Centre and the 45 plaintiffs who sued it this spring met on Wednesday in the Mineola chambers of State Supreme Court Justice R. Bruce Cozzens Jr. to work on a timetable. The judge has given the diocese until Nov. 18 to answer all of the initial claims made by the victims represented in three lawsuits pending before him.

The cases, seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, were filed two months after a scathing Suffolk County grand jury report said the diocese had concealed the problem of predatory priests by shuffling them from parish to parish. The grand jury issued no criminal charges because too much time -- often decades -- had passed since the incidents occurred.

Before giving a response to the initial complaint, diocese officials are already asking the court to eliminate the explicitly detailed grand jury report, which is at the core of the victims' case. Attorney George Repetti, based in Williston Park, called the 180-page report "scandalous and prejudicial matter unnecessarily inserted" into the lawsuit. The grand jury report, he said in court papers, represented, "a one-sided investigation."

Melanie Little, a Garden City attorney representing the 17 plaintiffs, said the report, which documented how diocesan officials concealed the problem and tried to persuade victims not to sue, was necessary to understanding why those who were abused didn't bring legal action right away.

"The gravamen of the complaint is itself scandalous -- the sexual abuse of minors and a subsequent fraudulent cover-up of that abuse ... ," she said in court papers. If the plaintiffs can convince the court that such a fraud occurred, the lawsuits can proceed despite being filed years after the time limit for such cases would have passed.

Jeffrey Anderson, an expert in this type of litigation, said chances of successful cases brought after the statute of limitations has expired have been "dismal for many years, especially in New York." However, Anderson said that because of 18 months of national media attention, judges now have a "heightened awareness" of the problem of abuse by clergy.

"Years ago, they would be thrown out of court before we could even develop the concept of concealment and fraud," said Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., lawyer who brought his first sex abuse case against the Catholic Church 20 years ago and now has 200 similar cases pending nationwide.

Defending these lawsuits has been a dilemma for local dioceses because any aggressive tactics are sharply criticized by victims' groups and church faithful. At the same time, church leaders say the litigation often interferes with the church's effort to reach out to those who have been injured.

Bishop William Murphy has met with a number of victims and says his door is open to any victim who needs pastoral care. However, one of the reasons he has not met with more of them is that attorneys for some victims have forbidden their clients from speaking to diocese officials.

Eileen Puglisi, the diocese's new ombudsman for abuse cases, said one of the first things she did was contact every known victim "to say the diocese cares." She said she was told by one lawyer that her effort was "unethical." Puglisi, who is the director of the Office for the Protection of Children and Young People, declined to say how many victims there were. "Many of these people have lawyers. We don't want to interfere with the legal process. Our goal is to reach out and let people know we are available, that we want to help."

Murphy has not made any recent statements on the litigations or possible settlements. In response to the grand jury report in February, he wrote that there would be no more settlements "unless so instructed by the courts." Joanne Novarro, a spokeswoman for the diocese, said Murphy was referring to no secret and confidential deals of the past. However, she said, he is not ruling out settling new cases.

"Going forward, he will consult with his advisers and listen to their opinions on the best way to proceed," Novarro said.

Nationwide, there have been settlements this year in at least 16 dioceses, totaling approximately $170 million. That figure includes the massive $85 million settlement in Boston and those in Chicago, New Hampshire and Kentucky. Before these settlements it is estimated that the church has paid well over $1 billion -- from insurance and sale of assets -- to victims of sexual abuse by priests.

David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests said the rapid pace of settlements this year can be attributed to two reasons: "The likely coincidence of cases filed in 2002 progressing through the legal system and some church leaders realizing that almost nothing else can be done until some of this is behind them."

Anderson agrees that each diocese weighs the merits of the cases and public sentiments. "There is no national policy about settlements; it is still very haphazard," he said.

"What is a trend is that there is more likelihood of a settlement as the day of reckoning approaches in the courtroom and pressure mounts in the court of public opinion," said Anderson, who negotiated a $12-million settlement with the Archdiocese of Chicago earlier this month.

Meanwhile, on Long Island, the outcome is uncertain. Michael Dowd, a Manhattan attorney representing 27 plaintiffs suing the local diocese, said there has been no mention of any possible settlements here. "It would seem impossible to heal these wounds in Rockville Centre," he said, "without some effort to come to grips with the injury done to these people over many years."


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