Diocese of Camden Claiming Statute of Limitations Blocks Priest Sex Abuse Case
By Jason Laday
South Jersey Times
July 19, 2013
The Diocese of Camden is arguing that the statute of limitations bars a woman from seeking damages for alleged sexual abuses by a priest dating back to the early 1980s.
Lisa Shanahan, 44, filed suit in federal court against the diocese in May 2012 alleging a now-defrocked priest, Father Thomas Harkins, sexually abused her on 10 to 15 occasions between 1980 and 1981, while he served at St. Anthony of Padua in Hammonton.
U.S. District Court Judge Noel Hillman on June 27 rejected a motion to dismiss the complaint, ruling that since Harkins taught children’s catechism class at the church, the diocese in turn had a responsibility for the care of the students — Shanahan being one of them.
However, Cherry Hill attorney William DeSantis on behalf of the diocese filed a motion last week pointing to a series of phone calls Shanahan made in 2004 to diocesan offices.
During these five phone calls, DeSantis stated Shanahan sought to not only report the abuse committed against her, but also to protect children currently in the diocese.
According to DeSantis, this is proof Shanahan knew her rights and the facts necessary for filing a complaint at that time.
“Despite her complaints in 2004, the plaintiff sat on her rights and did not file suit against the diocese for another eight years,” reads DeSantis’ motion, in part.
In her initial complaint, Shanahan, who now resides in North Carolina, argued she did not know she had cause to file suit until October 2009, when an article she read about alleged sexual abuses by Catholic priests prompted her to look into Harkins.
When she discovered that the Diocese of Camden had been sued previously by other victims’ families — and that the priest had reportedly been treated for sexual misconduct prior to her own abuse — Shanahan decided to act.
According to the diocese, she was too late.
In his motion to reconsider the judge’s June decision, DeSantis wrote, “No case supports (Shanahan’s) position that a plaintiff may unilaterally extend the statute of limitation by not acting in a reasonably diligent manner to determine if she may have the basis for a cause of action.”
Days after the diocese filed its second attempt at a dismissal, Shanahan filed a motion for a default against the diocese, arguing the church has failed to answer her complaint in a timely fashion.
A telephone status conference has been scheduled for Aug. 13.
In her complaint, Shanahan alleges that Harkins fondled her outside of her underwear and, on one occasion, brought her to his room at the rectory and “digitally penetrated her.”
“Afterward, Harkins told her that she was a good girl and reassured her that everything was OK with what he had done,” reads the complaint.
She also claims that the diocese knew of the priest's actions and sought to conceal them.
According to the complaint, the abuse ended when Harkins was removed from the parish in 1981, the summer before Shanahan started sixth grade.
The church removed Harkins from the priesthood in 2002, reportedly due to allegations of child sexual abuse dating back to before 1996, all beyond the statute of limitations by the time he was defrocked.
Harkins has not been criminally charged.