High Court Eases Abuse Case
By Lynne Tuohy
July 18, 2006
The state Supreme Court for the first time has resolved a conflict between the General Assembly's 1972 decision to roll back the age of majority from 21 to 18 and its expansion of the time period in which a child victim of sexual assault may sue for damages as an adult.
The decision clears the way for a lawsuit to continue against the Norwich Diocese over allegations that a priest sexually assaulted a boy more than 40 years ago.
"David Doe," now 53, says he was repeatedly sexually assaulted by Norwich Catholic priest Bernard Bissonnette when he was 9 and 10 years old.
Doe was 19 in 1972 when the age of majority was lowered from 21 to 18. When he sued the Norwich Roman Catholic Diocesan Corporation in September 2002, at age 49, the diocese took the stance that his lawsuit was invalid because it should have been filed no later than when Doe reached the age of 48, 30 years after Doe attained majority, the corporation argued. The legislature in 2002 expanded the statute of limitations for filing child sex abuse claims from 17 to 30 years.
Superior Court Judge Robert Shapiro agreed, and granted the diocesan corporation's motion for summary judgment in April 2005. The state Supreme Court, in its unanimous ruling Monday, reversed that ruling and restored the case to the trial docket.
Deciphering this numbers quandary for the first time, the state's highest court ruled that anyone who was between the ages of 18 and 21 when the law rolling back the age of majority went into effect on Oct. 1, 1972, had 30 years from that date to file suit. The court noted the "special circumstances" created by the situation in which Doe and others found themselves, in that they did not attain the age of majority on their 18th birthdays.
Anyone who fell into Doe's category, however, would have had to initiate lawsuits before Oct. 1, 2002. Doe filed suit on Sept. 13, 2002, two weeks before that deadline, but only four months after the expanded time frame of "30 years from the age of majority" took effect on May 23, 2002. The previous time frame was 17 years.
Attorney Karen K. Clark, who handled Doe's appeal, said the ruling is "very significant, because we believe [Doe's] claim is pretty significant."
"From what we've been able to discover, there is evidence to show the diocese was well aware of this gentleman's propensities and did nothing to remove him from contact with children," Clark said.
Attorney Cindy Robinson of the Bridgeport law firm of Tremont & Sheldon, which has successfully litigated many of the state's priest sex-abuse cases, lauded the decision, but said it affects a very finite number of cases. "It doesn't have any kind of meaning for the future," she noted.
Robinson said her firm has successfully litigated cases involving people who were between the ages of 18 and 21 when the age of majority was lowered, in which attorneys for the church did not attempt to challenge the statute of limitations or definition of age of majority.
"It's kind of interesting when you see the diocese of Norwich pursing it to these lengths, given everything we know about the extent to which this priest was a known pedophile," Robinson said. "You have to question why they would pursue it in this fashion."
Bissonnette, 74, now lives in New Mexico. He could not be reached for comment.
Contact Lynne Tuohy at email@example.com.
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