Statute Has Run Out, Church Says of Brothers' Abuse Suit
By Geoffrey Fattah
Deseret Morning News [Utah]
February 2, 2006
Attorneys representing the Catholic Church and Judge Memorial High School called the sexual abuse reported by two brothers at the hands of a former teacher and priest egregious, but they told the Utah Supreme Court that the time to sue over the abuse had run out years ago.
"There have been violations of trust and principles at a tremendous number of levels," said Matthew McNulty, attorney for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City during oral arguments Wednesday. But three attorneys for the church said under Utah law, the statute of limitations is four years from the time the two brothers turned 18, meaning they had until they were 22 to complain to someone within the church or hire an attorney, neither of which was done.
Ralph Louis Colosimo, now 52, and Charles Matthew Colosimo, now 44, charged they were repeatedly sexually abused by former priest James Rapp between 1970 and '75. But the brothers didn't take action until 2003, when they filed an $80 million lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, the school's board of trustees, the Archdiocese of San Francisco and the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, the order Rapp belonged to.
Larry Keller, attorney for the Colosimos, said the brothers were taught to revere and respect priests and school officials. Add the fact that Rapp was also a friend of their family and the shame associated with the abuse, it is understandable that the men stayed silent for so long, Keller said. It wasn't until the two read an article in the Washington Post in 2002, detailing Rapp's history of inappropriate behavior involving young males, that they realized the scope of the problem.
Had the brothers inquired about Rapp's behavior, Keller said, there is evidence that they would have "met with a stone wall" from the school and church.
Keller points to letters written by a school counselor and Judge Memorial's principal that show they knew about Rapp's behavior but did not seem willing to do anything because it would look bad in a community dominated by another religion, Keller said. As to the issue of the statute of limitations, Keller called it a "legal technicality" in this case.
Attorney for the church Russell Fericks argued the clock on the statute of limitations started ticking at the time of the actual abuse. Fericks also took issue with the notion that had the brothers asked they would have been met with concealment when the fact is they never did ask. "These gentlemen were aware that something was seriously wrong," Fericks said.
Now many years later, the school's counselor is dead and the principal at the time is in a care center with Alzheimer's disease. Rapp is serving time in an undisclosed prison in Florida, having been moved from Oklahoma where he pleaded no contest in 1999 to two counts of lewd molestation of a boy and was sentenced to a 40-year prison term. Fericks said these facts pose a serious problem with taking the case to trial now.
Justices expressed concerns on both sides of the case.
Chief Justice Christine Durham took issue with Keller's claim to side-step the statute of limitations, noting that most court rulings allowing an exception involve victims with repressed memories. No such claim has been made in the Colosimos case.
"I know of no court which, in absence of repressed memories, has been allowed around the statute of limitations," in a child sex abuse case, Durham said.
Justice Michael Wilkins asked church attorneys that if the passage of time has had an impact on witnesses, wouldn't that be more of a problem for the Colosimos to prove their case?
Tim Dunn, attorney for the Diocese of San Francisco said he likened the brothers' knowledge of abuse to a worker who loses a finger at a factory and doesn't take legal action until years later.
Keller said there are indications that school officials had planned to "wash their hands" of the abuse at the time it happened. With that attitude, his clients had no chance to find out more about Rapp's behavior.
The brothers are asking Utah's high court to overturn a previous decision by the Utah Court of Appeals which upheld that the statute of limitations had tolled on the case. A written ruling is expected to be issued in the coming months.
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