Ex-Priest's Accusers Now Fight Diocese
Church Lawyers Say Suit Is Misdirected
By Jeff Diamant
Star-Ledger [New Jersey]
November 2, 2004
The accused former priest in New Jersey's most notorious clergy sex abuse case has already admitted, in a sworn statement, that he sexually abused at least 16 boys.
Still, accusers of the former Rev. James Hanley face an obstacle in court tomorrow when attorneys for the Roman Catholic diocese of Paterson argue that a civil lawsuit against the diocese is misdirected and that statutes of limitations have expired.
Lawyers for the diocese are asking State Superior Court Judge Deanne Wilson, who sits in Morristown, to dismiss the cases of the 26 plaintiffs and not give them the chance to argue one by one that their cases should be considered even though regular statutes of limitation expired.
It is a defense that has drawn criticism from Hanley's accusers, who say the diocese and its new bishop, Arthur Serratelli, are improperly playing legal hardball only two years after Catholic bishops in America pledged to be conciliatory toward clergy sex abuse victims in the wake of a national scandal.
"Of all cases, on this one ... I'm baffled as to why the new bishop would fight these claims in court," said Mark Serrano, a victim of Hanley who already settled with the diocese and is not a plaintiff in this case. "You're either on the side of justice and healing or you're not."
Ken Mullaney, attorney for the diocese, declined to comment.
The case is unusual among clergy sex abuse cases because of the accused priest's admission of guilt and cooperation with plaintiffs suing a diocese.
In a sworn statement taken last year by the plaintiffs' attorney, Hanley said he engaged in oral sex, sexual touching, open-mouth kissing and masturbation with the boys, and that he showered with them.
He also said in the statement that while meeting with then-Paterson Bishop Frank Rodimer in 1984 about a single accusation, he admitted he had molested about a dozen boys but that Rodimer did not ask him their names. He said Rodimer did not get him counseling until a year later, and then only after having falsely told the parents of one victim that Hanley was in counseling.
Hanley said Rodimer did not remove him from the ministry until more than a year after his admission to the bishop.
Rodimer, who retired this spring after serving as bishop since 1978, has said he underestimated the seriousness of the allegations until it was too late to prosecute.
Twenty-one of the 26 plaintiffs say Hanley abused them at the Church of St. Joseph in Mendham or Our Lady of Good Counsel in Pompton Plains, and contend church negligence and inaction allowed that abuse. The suit also includes individual claims about five other diocese priests.
The defense contends New Jersey's regular civil statute of limitations -- two years after the abuse, or in the case of a child victim, two years past the 18th birthday -- should apply.
But Gregory Gianforcaro, the plaintiffs' attorney, is arguing that case law allows for a broad reading of New Jersey's insanity statute to let most of the accusers -- who now are over 30 years old -- sue on the grounds that repressed memories of the abuse prevented them from suing earlier.
Other plaintiffs, who are not saying they repressed their memories, will argue instead that they delayed connecting their problems to the abuse until the scandal over clergy sex abuse brought national attention to the issue in 2002, Gianforcaro said. A provision of the state's sex abuse statute would allow for their claims now, he said.
One plaintiff, Bill Crane, now 39 and living in Oregon, said Hanley abused him as a child but that he realized only recently the impact it had on his life.
"I don't think that I fully truly understand the ramifications of control that Hanley had on me. I think I'm still in that process now," with therapy, he said last week.
Mullaney, the diocese attorney, has argued in court documents that that case law and statutes cited by the plaintiffs are not relevant to abuse claims against the diocese.
The diocese also is arguing that it is not liable, as an entity, for the abuse.
Hanley, formally removed from the priesthood last year, lives in a Paterson retirement home on a diocese pension.
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