Sex abuse lawsuit against Archdiocese of New Orleans clears early legal hurdle
By Jim Mustian
January 27, 2017
A sexual abuse lawsuit involving a popular former Jesuit priest survived a legal challenge Friday as a judge rejected arguments by Loyola University and the Archdiocese of New Orleans that a woman waited too long to bring decades-old rape claims against the Rev. Benjamin L. Wren.
Judge Sidney Cates IV, of Orleans Parish Civil District Court, denied a series of defense motions that contended the plaintiff, identified in court papers as Jane Doe, cannot collect damages because she failed to file suit until last year.
The woman claims that Wren raped her repeatedly between 1978 and 1985, beginning when she was 5.
The motions represented the church's first response to the allegations, even as lawyers for the archdiocese and the Jesuits of the USA Central and Southern Province, another defendant in the case, suggested the proceedings should be sealed.
The attorneys alleged that the lawsuit was "deficient" in several ways and that the woman improperly filed her claims under a pseudonym.
Wren, who died in 2006, taught Zen at Loyola, where he was beloved by generations of students. Many of them expressed disbelief last year when the lawsuit was filed, saying they could not conceive of Wren harming anyone.
The lawsuit, however, claims that he preyed upon Jane Doe for years and warned her she would "die and go to hell" if she ever revealed the abuse.
At a hearing Friday, Trey Paulsen, an attorney for the archdiocese, described the lawsuit as "vague and ambiguous." He said the rape claims should be dismissed under the civil law doctrine known as prescription, which sets out certain deadlines for victims to pursue damages.
"The underlying claims themselves are long gone," Paulsen told Cates. "They are prescribed."
The plaintiff's attorney, John Denenea Jr., countered that the church waived those deadlines when it apologized to the woman after she came forward in 2015 and "offered reparation in the form of the payment of her medical bills." The church, he said, has taken an "irrational position" after initially agreeing to pay his client, who has attempted suicide and received psychiatric treatment.
Attorneys for the defendants maintain those payments were "charitable" and not an acknowledgement of liability.
At the end of the hearing, Cates ruled in favor of the woman but did not explain his reasons. The lawsuit remains in the early stages, and the defendants will have additional opportunities to challenge its merits.
Denenea said his client was "saddened that the church raised over 14 different baseless arguments in an attempt to deny her healing and recovery." He said the judge, in his ruling, "recognized the legitimacy of her claims, and the public nature of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People."
"Unfortunately, we expect that the church's lawyers will appeal the judgment and continue to betray the principles of healing for victims that the Conference of Bishops established many years ago," Denenea added.
The Archdiocese of New Orleans and the Jesuits of the USA Central and Southern Province did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
A Loyola spokeswoman said the school does not comment on "matters of pending litigation which relate to students, staff or faculty. We will continue to address the legal issues raised in the lawsuit as we deem appropriate.”