Abuse Lawsuit Filed Too Late, Court Decides

By Jim Salter
The Associated Press
August 25, 2004

ST. LOUIS — A former seminarian's sexual abuse lawsuit against a priest who later became a Florida bishop was filed after the statute of limitations expired, a state appeals panel ruled Tuesday.

The lawsuit was filed by a man listed only as John T. Doe, who is now in his early 50s and lives in Massachusetts. He was a student at the St. Thomas Seminary in Hannibal, Mo., in the late 1960s, when the Most Rev. Anthony O'Connell was rector there. The seminary has since closed.

O'Connell left the seminary to become bishop in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1988 and later became bishop of the Diocese of Palm Beach, Fla. He resigned in March 2002 after admitting abusing another student at the Hannibal seminary.

A three-judge panel of the Missouri Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that the lawsuit filed in 2002 came well past the five-year statute of limitations for such lawsuits.

The suit also alleged violations of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act by Roman Catholic Church officials. That claim, the appeals court ruled, also fell outside the statute of limitations, which is four years for cases filed under that law.

Pat Noaker, an attorney for the former seminarian, said no decision had been reached on whether to appeal.

David Clohessy, president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said that many victims of clergy abuse suppress their memories and often forget about the abuse until years later.

The ruling “certainly is disappointing and contradicts the overall trend nationwide, which is to make it easier for victims to come forward, not harder,” Clohessy said. “It points to the continued need for legislation to reform these archaic statutes of limitations.”

Gerard Noce, an attorney for the defendants, said he wasn't sure what precedent the decision would have for other clergy abuse cases but added, “You can't wait 40 years to bring a lawsuit.”


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