Church Cases Are Back in Spotlight

By David Crumm
Detroit Free Press [Detroit MI]
November 2, 2004

The Catholic Church's effort to fend off lawsuits from people who say they were sexually abused by priests moves to a Detroit courtroom today, where a panel of three judges will hear arguments about whether such cases should proceed.

"If we lose at this point, then everyone who's suing the Catholic Church in Michigan ... is close to the end of the line," Okemos attorney Allan Falk, who will argue against the church today, said Monday.

At issue before the Michigan Court of Appeals is the state's statute of limitations, which has made it nearly impossible for abuse victims to pursue legal claims for damage they say was done to them, in most cases, decades ago.

Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida and other Catholic officials declined to comment on the legal issues, but Archdiocese of Detroit spokesman Ned McGrath said late last week that church attorneys plan to appear before the judges today and use "all available constitutional and statutory arguments and defenses."

The Detroit archdiocese and its insurers report having paid $1.4 million in settlements and counseling costs to victims of abuse over the past half-century. There is no complete accounting of unresolved claims by alleged victims statewide, so it is impossible to determine the size of the potential liability in Michigan. But looming in the minds of Catholic leaders is the legal swamp that has engulfed the church in California.

Because California's statute of limitations was temporarily lifted by a 2002 state law, hundreds of victims of past abuse have sued the church. The scope of those legal actions is so vast that news reports throughout the past year have increased the estimates of the potential impact. Last month, the Associated Press reported that more than 850 alleged victims now are suing the church in California; the San Francisco Chronicle estimated the total of the final settlements as possibly exceeding $1 billion.

"No one thinks that other states will come anywhere near California in settlements, but there are too many victims all across the country who still desperately need help that they're not receiving," David Clohessy, the St. Louis-based national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Monday.

"We're not talking about a sprained ankle 30 years ago that hurt for two weeks, then healed," Clohessy said. "We're talking about victims across the country who desperately need expensive, in-patient treatment for sex, drug and alcohol addictions that were a direct result of their abuse. We're talking about people whose self-esteem was so shattered by abuse that they may be unemployed or even unemployable and may be involved in self-destructive behavior.

"This isn't about vengeance," Clohessy said. "It's about people whose lives were destroyed and who never found healing."

In his statement on behalf of the archdiocese, McGrath stressed that there is no statute of limitation in reporting abuse to church officials and, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred, an accused priest is likely to be removed from ministry.

But that's different from settling alleged victims' legal claims, said Detroit attorney Justin Ravitz, who has two lawsuits against church officials pending in Michigan courts. One is a potential class action on behalf of victims, if judges set aside the statute of limitations and let the legal actions proceed.

"Our cases are different than the one the appeals court is considering, but the statute of limitations is the central issue in all these cases," Ravitz said. "What happens in this case will have an impact in our cases as well."

Falk is to appear before the appeals court on behalf of an alleged victim identified in the 2002 lawsuit only as John Doe.

"The molestation in this case occurred between 1972 and 1976. Over that four-year period, he was abused at least 50 times," Falk said. "Our claim is against the archdiocese for fraudulently concealing its involvement in reassigning priests who abused children."

Falk said his central legal argument is that "the church's systematic plan of keeping this whole problem from surfacing" ran afoul of Michigan law. If so, that violation might convince judges to set aside the statute of limitations, Falk said. That would clear the way for the John Doe lawsuit, originally filed by Southfield attorney Cyril Weiner.

The three-judge panel of Karen Fort Hood, Kirsten Frank Kelly and Mark Cavanagh has scheduled an hour for oral arguments today, then will rule later on the appeal. If they rule against Falk and Weiner, the attorneys say they could appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court.


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