Diocese Seeking to Appeal Ruling
It Wants to Settle Statute of Limitations Issue in Sexual Abuse Civil Cases

By Kathleen Parrish
The Morning Call [Allentown PA]
July 27, 2004

Hoping to avoid a lengthy and costly county trial, the Allentown Catholic Diocese wants a higher court to settle once and for all whether the statute of limitations involving allegations of sexual abuse by priests can be stretched beyond two years.

In court papers filed last week, the diocese asked permission from Lehigh County Court and the state Superior Court to appeal a recent decision by a three-judge county panel that allowed six cases against the diocese to proceed, even though the alleged abuse occurred decades ago.

In civil cases seeking monetary awards, a plaintiff has two years after the abuse occurred to file a lawsuit. In these cases the plaintiffs believe the two-year clock should have started when they learned the diocese knew of the abuse.

Under the appeals procedure, the diocese must get permission from both the Lehigh County and Superior courts to seek a ruling.

But attorney Jay Abramowitch, who is representing the alleged victims, said the proposed appeal is nothing more than an attempt to avoid discovery, a process that would force the diocese to turn over documents that could reveal the diocese was aware of the abuse and what it did about it.

"This is just another attempt to block us from getting the files," Abramowitch said.

Diocesan attorney Jay Leeson could not be reached for comment.

In refusing to dismiss the cases last month, the Lehigh County panel left open the possibility that the diocese could raise the statute of limitations issue later.

In the appeal petition, the diocese argued it would rather have the statute of limitations question resolved now than at the end of an arduous trial. That way, time and money are spared if the cases are thrown out as a result of that issue, the diocese said.

In support of its contention that the statute of limitations has expired, the diocese suggested that the plaintiffs knew they had been sexually abused by a priest at the time it happened. The discovery rule counts the statute of limitations from the time the plaintiff becomes aware the defendant caused them harm, the diocese said.

But the six lawsuits aren't against the individual priests, they're against the diocese, and the plaintiffs argue the statute of limitations began when they discovered the church knew about the abuse and did nothing to stop it.

If the diocese receives permission to file an appeal, the case will be heard by the Superior Court, but precedent isn't on the diocese's side, according to Abramowitch. In two decisions, the Superior Court denied attempts by the Diocese of Johnstown-Altoona to have sexual abuse claims against it dismissed based on arguments that the statute of limitations had expired, according to Abramowitch.



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