Appeals Court Ruling Erases Suit Alleging Sex Abuse by Priest;
'Recovered Memories' Not Allowed As Exceptions to Statute of Limitations
By Kate Shatzkin
August 21, 1996
A Maryland Court of Appeals ruling that "recovered memories" of sexual abuse cannot be used as exceptions to the state's statute of limitations has erased another lawsuit alleging abuse by a Catholic priest, and attorneys say others soon may be dropped as a result of the ruling.
The court ruled last month that two women who claimed to have recovered memories of longtime sexual abuse by the Rev. A. Joseph Maskell while they were students at Archbishop Keough High School in the 1960s and 1970s could not sue the priest or the Archdiocese of Baltimore because they filed too long after the alleged abuse occurred.
Since the Maskell ruling July 29, lawyers have dropped a "repressed memory" lawsuit against the Rev. Jerome F. Toohey Jr., former president of the board of directors of John Carroll School in Bel Air and a former chaplain at Calvert Hall College high school in Towson. Toohey was accused of sexually abusing a student who sought counseling after telling his family that "he was afraid that he was a homosexual."
The Toohey case was one of four or five "recovered memories" suits pending against the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said Robert H. Bouse Jr., a lawyer who represents the archdiocese. Attorneys for the archdiocese are hoping others will be dismissed as well, he said.
Those cases don't include an unknown number of lawsuits that may have been filed around the state against parents, teachers or other professionals based on so-called recovered memories -- lawsuits that also may be affected by the Maskell ruling.
State law requires that civil suits be filed within three years of the harm alleged. If the plaintiff was a child, the suits must be filed within three years of his or her 18th birthday.
The Toohey suit was filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court in March 1994, five years after the alleged sexual contact ended. Toohey's lawyer at the time issued a statement saying the priest denied any sexual misconduct involving the youth. Toohey did not return a telephone call.
Another suit, filed last year, accuses the Rev. Francis LeFevre of abusing a former altar boy when he was parish priest at St. Anthony of Padua Church on Frankford Avenue in Northeast Baltimore's Gardenville section 20 years ago. The plaintiff, now in his 30s, claims in the suit that he recovered memories of the sexual contact after seeing television commercials for a sexual assault recovery center in October 1992.
The plaintiff's lawyer in that case, Dennis F. O'Brien, could not be reached for comment on the status of the case yesterday. Both Toohey and LeFevre were relieved of clerical duties when allegations were made against them. Despite the Maskell ruling, their statuses remain unchanged, said Bill Blaul, spokesman for the archdiocese.
Meanwhile, the Court of Appeals has decided to rule on a series of civil cases against John Joseph Merzbacher Jr., a lay teacher sentenced to four life terms last year for repeatedly raping and sexually abusing one of his students in the 1970s at Catholic Community Middle School in South Baltimore.
Merzbacher was indicted on about 100 other charges involving 13 other accusers who also said the former teacher abused them. But the charges were dropped after Merzbacher was sentenced in the first case.
Merzbacher's students claim they did not repress their memories of abuse, but simply were too afraid of him to sue until he was indicted in January 1994. They say he threatened, at gunpoint, to kill them if they told anyone about his alleged abuse. They argued that their fear was "reasonable," and therefore created an exception to the statute.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan did not accept that argument. Plaintiffs appealed that ruling to the Court of Special Appeals, but the state's highest court recently took the case instead.
Arguments before the court in that case are scheduled for January.
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