4 Priests Accused of Sex Abuse in Suits Filed against Diocese. Lawyers Prepare for Litigation over Sexual Abuse by Clergy
By Nancy Meersman
Union Leader (Manchester NH)
April 9, 2002
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester was hit yesterday with four lawsuits accusing the church of failing to protect six children from sexual assaults by priests at four different New Hampshire parishes.
The lawsuits say the priests molested young male parishioners in Manchester, Hudson, Keene and Somersworth from the late 1960s through the early 1980s, and they blame the church for allowing it to happen. The suits are filed against the Roman Catholic Bishop of Manchester Inc.
"The church was complicit in keeping all this stuff buried, with catastrophic effects on the emotional lives of the victims and their families. It has torn them apart," said attorney Mark A. Abramson, who filed the lawsuits in Hillsborough County Superior Court.
Abramson said some of the six plaintiffs he represents came forward after Bishop John B. McCormack in February issued a list of 14 priests who had been accused of sexual misconduct and who had been removed from parish duties.
The bishop said the church knew of no credible accusations of sexual misconduct against other priests. The four priests in the lawsuits were not on the bishop's list. They are not listed as priests in the Manchester Diocese's current directory.
One of the lawsuits, brought by three brothers under the names John Doe I, II and III, identifies a priest whose name is being withheld in today's editions because his accusers are anonymous.
The others accused include the Rev. Philip Petit of St. Jean the Baptist in Manchester, the Rev. Francis Lamothe of St. Margaret Mary in Keene and a priest who has not yet been conclusively identified who allegedly molested a minor in the Holy Trinity Rectory in Somersworth.
Patrick McGee, spokesman for the diocese, said the church had nothing to say about the lawsuits yesterday because no one had seen them. Nor, he said, could the diocese discuss why these names were absent from the bishop's list of priests accused of sexual misconduct.
McGee said he would research the status of the accused individuals and respond later.
Abramson, a plaintiff's attorney with Abramson, Brown and Dugan in Manchester, litigated the civil lawsuit by the Grover brothers of Keene against former priest Gordon MacRae in the 1990s. (MacRae is serving up to 67 years in prison on a 1994 rape conviction.)
Abramson said that case was so emotionally upsetting that he was reluctant to handle any more sexual abuse allegations against the clergy. But he felt it was necessary to seek some form of justice for people whose lives have been ruined. "I wish there was some way to hold the church criminally responsible," he said.
In one suit, the three "Doe" brothers and their parents allege a priest "savagely sexually assaulted" the pre-pubescent boys, who were frequently sent to play on the grounds of the John the Evangelist Rectory in Hudson.
Abramson said the parents thought: "What safer place than the rectory?"
He said the priest took one of the boys to the ocean and asserted his power over him by holding his head under water as he struggled. The boy finally escaped.
In his introduction to the lawsuit, Abramson says, "These monstrous acts have caused permanent, traumatic and devastating emotional injury to the plaintiffs by this defendant's utter failure to make even the most minimal effort to protect them from harm."
Abramson said the Doe brothers went on to serve as military officers, they now have good jobs and they don't need money from a lawsuit, but they were harmed.
"It's their psyche that's been destroyed, horribly traumatized in ways words can't describe," Abramson said.
"One of them told me it has affected any decision he has made in his entire life."
Abramson expects the Manchester Diocese to say it had no obligation to disclose the name of the priest the Does are accusing because he is deceased.
"We have information that he's not dead. They knew exactly who he was," the lawyer said. In one of the other suits, David Labrie of Manchester alleges he was sexually assaulted from 1979 through 1981 by Petit at the former St. Jean Baptiste Church in Manchester. As a result, the lawsuit says, Labrie "suffered severe and painful physical injuries, devastating and continuing emotional psychological harm and loss of enjoyment of life."
Jeffrey Theberge of Fremont lodges similar allegations against Lamothe for the years 1979 through 1982.
Plaintiff Thomas Eschmann of Somersworth accuses an unidentified priest of assaulting him at Holy Trinity Rectory in Somersworth from 1966 to 1968. Abramson said the priest was not identified because Eschmann was not certain of the name, but that would be established later.
Abramson said the priest, while wearing his clerical collar, would take boys aside and have inappropriate sexual contact with them.
The lawsuits to not specify damages sought.
"How much is the destruction of your emotional reserves worth?" Abramson said. ". . . maybe the church can put a figure on it." The diocese settled the MacRae cases, but only after a bitter fight on technical grounds, Abramson said. The case would have collapsed if Judge Carol Ann Conboy hadn't ruled that the six-year statute of limitations hadn't begun to run until the victims became emotionally aware of the harm that was done to them.
In the end, the church paid, but the amount is confidential.
At least three other attorneys have said publicly they have clients who allege they were sexually abused by priests in New Hampshire and plan to sue.
Abramson said the Manchester Diocese had adequate insurance coverage in the 1990s because there were not many cases here, and he surmises this may still be the case.
Lawyers prepare for litigation over sexual abuse by clergy
It may be an exaggeration to say there has been a flood of people contacting lawyers with claims of abuse by Catholic priests, but New Hampshire Bar Association President Peter Hutchins said bar members want to be prepared.
Hutchins said he will be speaking to lawyers Thursday about sexual abuse litigation rules and procedures. He said he'll be joined in the meeting of the Inns of Court presentation at the Centennial Inn by Amherst attorney Barbara Landry.
The Manchester attorney said he already has a number of clients, including one who has alleged sexual abuse by a Bishop Guertin High School teacher between 1973 and 1974. Hutchins said he also has five cases involving six priests from the Diocese of Manchester.
His current clients all allege abuse many years ago, when they were young adolescents, and too much time has elapsed for criminal prosecution. Victims who were under age 18 when assaulted have until age 40 to file charges.
Concord attorney Charles Douglas has several clients, including a 22-year-old man he has already sent for an interview at the Attorney General's Office. Douglas said: "He's well within the criminal statute (time limit)."
Douglas said his youthful client came to him out of frustration. He said the young man had met with the Rev. Edward J. Arsenault, the diocesan chancellor and sexual misconduct policy administrator, and was assured the alleged abuser would no longer be allowed to actively practice in a church.
Douglas said the young man then learned that the priest continued to be active. Douglas said: "He felt he'd been lied to."
Arsenault said in February that the diocese has complied with the state's child protection and mandatory reporting laws since they were enacted in 1979.
Both Hutchins and Douglas said they weren't rushing to file civil lawsuits, wanting not only the case but also the client to be ready.
Hutchins said that from a psychological standpoint, it may take considerable counseling for a client to be ready to face a trial. He said many abuse victims have just recently come to realize that they were abused and that the abuse may be responsible for problems in their lives, such as alcoholism, violent relationships, failed marriages, drug use and other problems.
If the abuse occurred before 1986, victims have six years to file a claim, but "when does that six years start to run?" said Hutchins. It may be that the victim didn't realize he was injured for many years after the abuse, and the clock should start at that point, he said.
But Hutchins is also looking at other possible approaches, including one that would solve the statute of limitations problem.
He said New Hampshire law provides that if the defendant was fraudulently concealing the existence of a potential cause of action, that would stop the clock.
Douglas said he's hopeful that in some legitimate cases that are "time-barred," the diocese might still agree to provide money, under a confidential agreement, so that victims could get counseling.
As the number of potential cases grows, Douglas said it might be appropriate for attorneys to go to the church and suggest a survivors fund be established, with an arbitrator to determine settlement amounts.
Both men said the revelations about abuse can have a positive effect. They have made many victims aware that they weren't the only one a priest abused, that the relationship wasn't special, and that it was, indeed, abuse. It also can make them angry and lead them to seek counseling.
Douglas said he has two brothers who were unaware the other had also been abused. Both thought they were the only one.
Not all victims could, or would, seek a financial settlement. Hutchins said: "The money thing isn't the first thing out of their mouth." For many, it's a realization about what has caused problems: "I've buried it for 30 years."
Douglas said it is important that victims get a letter of apology from the bishop, on official stationary. He said: "It's very important, psychologically, to see that. . . . It's tangible evidence it was not their fault."
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