Archdiocese Says Abuse Victims Missed Their Chance to Sue

Associated Press, carried in The Herald-Mail [Philadelphia PA]
July 9, 2004

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - An attorney for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia told a judge Thursday that people who were abused by Roman Catholic clergy decades ago missed their chance to sue the church, even if their allegations of rape and molestation are true.

Citing the state's strict statute of limitations, the archdiocese asked Judge Arnold New to dismiss almost two dozen lawsuits filed by people who say they were molested by priests or a nun as long ago as the 1950s.

Archdiocese attorney C. Clark Hodgson Jr. called abuse of children at the hands of priests "tragic," but said faded memories and the deaths of witnesses, including 10 of the accused priests, would make it impossible for the church to defend itself now.

He also chided the alleged victims for not hiring attorneys sooner, saying they could have preserved their right to sue if they had made any attempt to investigate the church at the time the abuse happened.

"They were required to proceed with due diligence; they did not. They were required to proceed with an investigation; they did not," Hodgson said.

Pennsylvania generally bars personal injury lawsuits that aren't filed within two years of the alleged attack.

Philadelphia attorney Stewart Eisenberg, who represents six people suing the church, told New that it would be unfair to expect children being raped by their priests to have hired lawyers.

"Don't cut off these people's rights without an opportunity to find out what happened," Eisenberg said. "If you permit the archdiocese to hide behind the statute of limitations, an extreme injustice will be done."

One plaintiff present for the hearing, Nicholas V. Siravo, said afterward that if he had told his father about the abuse as a child or young man, "he would have just smacked me and said I was lying."

"People didn't believe priests were capable of anything like this back then," Siravo said.

Lawyers for the alleged victims have sought to get around the time limit by arguing that church officials conspired for decades to hide the role they played in protecting abusive priests.

The suits, all of which were filed within the past year, said the victims didn't realize the church might have had a role in concealing abuse until 2002, when U.S. bishops publicly acknowledged the extent of the problem for the first time.

That argument has met with recent success elsewhere.

Last month, a three-judge panel in Lehigh County refused to throw out six lawsuits filed against the Diocese of Allentown. A judge issued a similar ruling in Westmoreland County, clearing a way for a lawsuits against the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

New did not indicate when or how he would rule, but questioned two of the plaintiffs' attorneys sharply, and appeared visibly annoyed by Eisenberg's assertion that the archdiocese was hiding behind the statute of limitations.

The Philadelphia archdiocese said in February that 44 priests have been "credibly" accused of molesting minors since the 1950s.

Separately from the civil suits, a grand jury has been meeting for more than a year to determine whether criminal charges are warranted against any priests or the church officials.

To date, only one priest has been indicted, but the panel has heard testimony from several top church officials, including Philadelphia's former archbishop, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua.


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