Judge Says No on Priest Report
Plaintiffs Cannot Use Jurors' Findings
By Rita Ciolli
Newsday [Long Island NY]
November 25, 2003
Plaintiffs suing the Diocese of Rockville Centre and priests they say abused them cannot use the scathing findings of a Suffolk County grand jury report in their legal pleadings, a Nassau State Supreme Court justice ruled yesterday.
However, Justice R. Bruce Cozzens Jr. left open the possibility that the report could be used as evidence at any trial that may come from the civil litigation.
Cozzens said that incorporating the report into the case at this preliminary stage could "prejudice" the defendants. Cozzens said the victims' legal papers were detailed enough and that the report was not necessary to make the initial case.
The diocese and its priests were sued this spring by 45 plaintiffs seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. The lawsuits, which have been consolidated under Cozzens, mirrored the grand jury report that 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.
Meanwhile, in its first formal response to the lawsuits, the diocese has denied all the abuse allegations. Diocesan lawyers also argued that the lawsuits were filed too late under state law. Lawyers for the plaintiffs said in their complaints that fraud and concealment on the part of the diocese should exempt them from the time limits.
The diocese says defending itself against the lawsuits, while at the same time trying to move Long Island Catholics past this episode, is difficult. "Our legal response in no way lessens our concern for the victims of sexual abuse," said Joanne Novarro, a spokeswoman for the diocese. "We will continue to reach out to them."
Michael Dowd, one of the plaintiff's attorneys, said, "I look forward to hearing the outreaching side of Bishop [William] Murphy. Nowhere is it seen through the voices of his lawyers."
Despite yesterday's ruling, the lawyers are not yet finished arguing over what can be used from the 180-page grand jury report. Melanie Little, another plaintiff's attorney, is asking that the judge order the release of the actual transcripts of the grand jury proceeding.
"The diocese position has been, from the beginning, that the grand jury was one-sided and they did not have an opportunity to cross-examine the witness," Little said.
"Let's find out who these people are so that the defendants now have a chance to cross-examine them," she said. Little said there could be a limited release of the minutes to the parties in the case while keeping the material private.
However, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota would oppose any effort to have the minutes made public, a spokesman said yesterday. The diocese has not yet responded to the motion to release the minutes, Novarro said. The parties are scheduled back in court on Dec. 5.
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