Judges to Rule If Diocese Suits Can Continue
Lawyers Say Accusers Only Recently Learned Church Did Them Harm
By Debbie Garlicki firstname.lastname@example.org
The Morning Call [Allentown PA]
May 13, 2004
Three Lehigh County judges who will decide whether alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests can proceed with lawsuits asked lawyers numerous questions Wednesday that provoked thought but didn't indicate how they will rule.
Joseph Leeson, the Allentown Catholic Diocese's attorney, asked Judges Carol K. McGinley, Alan M. Black and J. Brian Johnson to dismiss six suits because the statute of limitations for filing them expired. He said the plaintiffs are trying to circumvent deadlines for filing suits by using theories that have no basis in the law.
Jay Abramowitch, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, argued that the cases should be allowed to continue because the plaintiffs didn't know until relatively recently that the diocese had engaged in misrepresentations, fraud and concealment.
The three judges took the issue under advisement and will issue a decision later.
Abramowitch and lawyer Richard Serbin have filed eight suits in Lehigh County - the last two on Tuesday - and about 100 across the state.
The plaintiffs have not sued individual priests who allegedly abused them but have filed suits against the Allentown Diocese, Bishop Edward P. Cullen and retired Bishop Thomas J. Welsh.
Leeson contends that the suits should be dismissed because they contain admissions by the plaintiffs that they knew a long time ago that abuse occurred, when, by whom and where. The alleged victims, he said, want the court to create a new "judicially unrecognized" cause of action against the diocese because of a national scandal that has nothing to do with the individual cases.
The suits, Leeson said, should have been filed by the time the plaintiffs were 20 years old. In sexual abuse cases, accusers have two years from the time they reach adulthood at 18 to start lawsuits.
Leeson said the plaintiffs could have filed suits long ago against the diocese for negligent supervision and hiring of priests.
Wasn't there "a different atmosphere" years ago than there is now? Black asked.
Leeson conceded that people in the past weren't willing to sue. Now, amid almost daily reports of clergy sexual abuse, they are, but that doesn't mean the law has changed because people have, he said.
Abramowitch countered that the suits are valid, primarily because of the unique relationship between children and Catholic authorities and priests.
From the time they are very young, children raised in the Catholic faith are "indoctrinated" into the belief that priests can do no wrong and are a step away from God, Abramowitch said. Children are taught to trust priests and not to question them, he added.
Years ago, the child victims who are now adults had no way of knowing that the diocese knew certain priests were pedophiles, that the diocese misrepresented that other children hadn't been abused and that the National Conference of Bishops would admit in the future that nationally there was a cover-up of sexual crimes by priests.
Revelations over the last 21/2 years opened "old wounds" for victims and caused them more harm for which the diocese should be liable, according to Abramowitch.
He said the plaintiffs could not have known "through reasonable diligence" about other victims, other crimes and the diocese's role in not disclosing the truth.
Abramowitch used an analogy to make his point that the time it takes for injury to manifest itself doesn't matter in these cases.
If a safe falls from a building onto people below, and they are injured as a result of negligence, he said, it doesn't matter how long it took for the safe to fall.
McGinley asked him whether people could continually file new lawsuits in the future every time a diocese takes some kind of action that results in renewed harm to a person.
Abramowitch said the statute of limitations should start running when plaintiffs realize they have been victimized by a diocese.
The judges asked him whether he was saying the Allentown Diocese was liable as the employer of the priests. Abramowitch said he was not.
His theory, he said, is that the diocese placed priests in a position to commit sexual abuse and misrepresented its own culpability.
Johnson asked Leeson and Abramowitch whether they could think of examples of other relationships similar to that of a child and a priest.
Abramowitch said an attorney-client relationship might be similar in that it involves one party having power over the other and the client relying on the lawyer's representations.
What, Johnson asked, is the relationship between a child and the diocese? Is the relationship the same as a child and a teacher? What about a child and a parent?
Abramowitch said the relationship between a child and a teacher is similar but that the power a priest wields is much greater.
McGinley said it seemed that Abramowitch was saying that there should be different rules for filing suits against religious institutions.
Abramowitch said he was not asking for new or special rules for these cases, just the realization that these suits could not have been filed earlier because the plaintiffs didn't know they were harmed by the diocese until recently.
Leeson said no law supports filing a suit 20 years after an injury occurs.
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