Court Rejects Case against Diocese

By Edward Fitzpatrick
The Providence Journal
February 9, 2008

PROVIDENCE — The state Supreme Court yesterday rejected an appeal by a Burrillville woman whose lawsuit against Roman Catholic Church officials was dismissed because she waited too long to sue after she was raped by a priest in 1982.

Mary Ryan was the only one of 38 alleged victims of sexual abuse who did not accept part of a $13.5-million settlement with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence in 2002. Ryan said she wanted to continue the legal battle so she would have her day in court and prompt full disclosure.

But the Supreme Court said Ryan and her husband, Thomas Ryan, filed their lawsuit more than a decade past the statutory deadline.

Msgr. Louis Ward Dunn Jr., a former pastor of St. Thomas Church in Providence, was convicted of first-degree sexual assault for forcing Ryan to have intercourse in June 1982, so Ryan had until June 1985 to sue, the high court said. But the Ryans filed their civil suit in 1995.

"We have genuine empathy for Ms. Ryan," Justice William P. Robinson III wrote in the court's 22-page ruling. "She was the victim of heinous criminal conduct committed by one who showed himself to be unworthy of the honorific title that he once bore."

But it's now time for this litigation to end, Robinson said. "The plaintiffs have had their day in court," he wrote.

Robinson said the Ryans were called upon to make decisions after they filed suit, Superior Court Judge Robert D. Krause was called upon to decide whether to dismiss the case once it came before him, and the Supreme Court backed Krause's decision "in all respects."

"The American judicial system as it exists today is admirable," Robinson wrote. "Nevertheless, our judicial system is not a panacea that can satisfy everyone who has recourse to it. Some wrongs and injuries do not lend themselves to full redressment by the judicial system."

The Diocese of Providence issued a statement saying, "The diocese will continue to fully cooperate with the judicial process. We express our care and concern for all involved in these difficult cases."

Ryan said the decision left her and her family "heartsick." Referring to members of the Supreme Court, she said, "I don't need their empathy. What I needed them to do was make the right decision."

Ryan said she never got her day in court. "This is a slap in the face to all citizens in the state of Rhode Island," she said. "Roger Williams would turn over in his grave if he were alive today. There is no separation of church and state in Rhode Island."

Ryan, who turned down a $400,000 settlement offer from the diocese, said she refused to settle because she didn't want to take part in a "coverup" by church officials. She said the three-year period to sue should have begun in 1994 "when I learned for the first time that the defendants were part of a criminal coverup."

Also, Ryan said the Supreme Court has in the past recognized that young people who are sexually abused "have a difficult time coming forward." She said, "I'm utterly shocked that those who hold such a scholarly position in the Supreme Court would attach their names to such a horrific decision that is inconsistent with previous, educated Supreme Court opinions."

The Supreme Court said that in October 1978, when she was 17, Ryan "became involved in a sexual relationship" with Dunn, and over four years, she "engaged in consensual sexual activities with Dunn." Ryan objected to that description yesterday, saying the sexual activity was never consensual.

The court said, "There is testimony by Ms. Ryan to the effect that she was induced into performing those sexual acts in part because of her love for Dunn and in part because of her belief that 'each and every act was an act of God'; she also testified as to her conviction that, as a priest, Dunn possessed the power of God and thus was to be feared and obeyed."

The decision said the relationship ended in 1982 when Ryan was 21 and "Dunn forcibly had intercourse with Ms. Ryan against her will." The decision said Ryan did not tell anyone about the assault until 1994, after learning that Dunn had been sexually involved with other women and realizing he was a "fraud." She testified that she'd remained silent because "she feared what Dunn could do to her in view of her belief that he possessed the power of God."

Dunn was convicted of first-degree sexual assault in 1997 and given a suspended 10-year sentence. He died in 2001.

The Supreme Court said Krause was aware that the statute of limitations "posed a significant impediment" to Ryan's lawsuit, and he "urged all parties involved to engage in settlement and/or mediation proceedings." But the Ryans opted out of the 2002 settlement, and their lawyer withdrew. The Ryans proceeded, representing themselves.

In August 2003, Krause issued what the Supreme Court called "a comprehensive and scholarly" decision that said the Ryans had not sued within the required three-year period. The Ryans asked Krause to remove himself from the case, claiming he was "biased toward plaintiffs because they did not enter a mediation/binding arbitration process promoted by the court." But Krause refused.

The Supreme Court concluded that the Ryans sued "more than 10 years after the statutory period had run" and it rejected various arguments for suspending the statute of limitations.

For example, it said the Ryans had presented no evidence that the defendants "fraudulently concealed" criminal conduct. And it said the "stated reason for the delay in filing suit was not objectively reasonable," agreeing with Krause that "a reasonable person of 21 years of age would surely have known that Dunn's forced sexual actions constituted actionable, wrongful conduct."

Also, the court said the Ryans "utterly failed to convince us of the presence of any personal bias on the part of" Krause. "In view of the venerable judicial policy of encouraging settlement and endorsing the mediation alternative, it borders on the offensive for a party to claim that a justice should be recused for adhering to this policy," Robinson wrote.

The decision quoted "no less renowned a figure than Abraham Lincoln" as saying, "Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser — in fees, expenses and waste of time."



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