Federal Judge Drops Lawsuits against Priests
The Ruling, in Suits Filed by Three Men Who Allege They Were Sexually Abused As Children, Has Ramifications for Cases Involving Repressed Memory and the Statute of Limitations
By Jonathan D. Rockoff
March 19, 1998
A federal judge yesterday dismissed three child-abuse lawsuits filed against two Roman Catholic priests, ruling the suits were entered after the statute of limitations had expired.
U.S. District Judge Ernest C. Torres found that the statute of limitations ran out even though one of the three men who filed the lawsuits said he didn't recall the alleged abuse until recently and the other two didn't realize until recently that they had been wronged.
The ruling is important because Rhode Island courts have not yet stepped into this uncharted territory of repressed recollection, and now have precedent to consider, albeit precedent that is not binding.
Indeed, a Rhode Island Superior Court judge is currently considering whether to dismiss a host of other child-abuse lawsuits against priests for the same reasons that Torres outlined in his 33-page opinion.
All told, there are 43 such lawsuits filed in both federal and state courts in Rhode Island. The lawsuits accuse nine priests of sexually molesting children - and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence of covering it up.
William T. Murphy, the diocese's lawyer, hailed the ruling as "helpful" because it would serve as a guide during the consideration of motions to dismiss the outstanding child-abuse lawsuits.
"We're happy that the court accepted our arguments and that the cases are dismissed," Murphy added, "but this is not a victory. There are no winners in lawsuits." The diocese's spokesman could not be reached.
Carl P. DeLuca, who argued for all three plaintiffs, vowed to appeal the decision. He said that the case would have been appealed whether he won or lost, and it's better the issues are hashed out before a trial begins.
"As a practical matter, though nobody likes to lose, it's better for us to lose at this level and then take it up for appeal," he said, "Then if we win, we can have a trial."
The three lawsuits that Torres ruled on yesterday were entered against the Rev. William C. O'Connell and Robert Marcantonio, a former priest, five years ago, at least five years after the men alleging abuse turned 21.
Although the suits were in federal court, the judge was relying on Rhode Island law to decide them. And state law allows child-abuse lawsuits to be filed up to three years after alleged victims become adults.
Seeking to bypass that statute of limitations, the three men argued it didn't start ticking immediately after they turned 21. State law allows such a delay under a limited number of exceptions.
One man said he only recently remembered the abuse, and the other two said they only recently realized it was abuse and, therefore, wrong. And they argued that such repressed recollection kept the statute of limitations from starting.
For that argument, they pointed to an exception in the state law delaying the running of the statute of limitations for people of "unsound mind," legal language that state courts had never defined.
The men also argued for delay because the diocese didn't tell them they were abused. For that, they referred to another exception for "fraudulent concealment," being wrongly told there wasn't any legal case.
In his decision, Torres rejected both of the plaintiffs' arguments. He said they weren't of "unsound mind" because they were never incompetent - they were never institutionalized for medical or mental problems.
And the judge said the fact that the men weren't told they may have had a legal claim didn't constitute fraudulent concealment. The exception applies only if they had been lied to.
The findings are important because the statute of limitations law, and its exceptions, haven't been hashed out in Rhode Island courts. Such federal court opinions aren't binding on state courts, but they are weighed heavily.
Torres's opinion will carry even more weight because it's the only one around that involves Rhode Island law. Still, Superior Court Judge Richard J. Israel has ruled differently from Torres on similar issues before.
Israel is the judge overseeing the 38 child-abuse lawsuits in the state courts. The diocese has asked him to dismiss those suits also because the statute of limitations has expired.
Murphy said the diocese will soon move to have one of the two remaining cases in federal court dismissed because the statute of limitations expired. The other case does not involve such an issue, so it will continue.
The parallel tracks of the lawsuits in both federal and state courts offer a glimpse of the cases' complex path through Superior Court, Rhode Island Supreme Court and U.S. District Court.
That path has resulted in a maze of new case law, including the precedent, established by the Rhode Island Supreme Court two years ago, telling trial judges to decide if repressed recollection can be used.
That is a controversial theory in medical, legal and scientific communities. There is dispute about how reliable such memories are, and the state's high court basically told trial juges to decide in each case.
Murphy, the diocese's lawyer, said he will bring up another controversial legal issue on the appeal of yesterday's decision. That issue involves whether courts can hear child-abuse cases against priests.
It is not yet settled whether courts can do so or whether they are barred by the constitutional separation of church and state. In a decision last November, however, Torres sided with those who believe courts can hear such cases.
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