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  Judge Dismisses Suit, Rebukes Camden Diocese

By Nancy Phillips
Philadelphia Inquirer
May 5, 2002

Even as he criticized the church for its "hardball" tactics, a New Jersey judge handed a legal defeat Friday to two brothers who had sued the Roman Catholic Diocese of Camden alleging childhood sexual abuse by a priest.

Judge John G. Himmelberger Jr. of Atlantic County Superior Court dismissed the lawsuit, saying the men waited too long to sue.

Although he ruled in favor of the diocese, Himmelberger excoriated its decision to vigorously contest the suit.

"The church's position in this litigation is at odds with its stance as a moral force in society," he said.

Although Robert and Philip Young did not sue until after the statute of limitations had expired, the judge said, the abuse they described in his courtroom was "horrific" and left evident emotional scars.

"... From where I sit, playing legal hardball doesn't seem quite right," Himmelberger said.

The Youngs sued the diocese in 1995, saying they suffered repeated abuse by Msgr. Philip Rigney from 1975 to 1983.

Robert Young, 37, said he was sexually assaulted by the priest, a close family friend, from the time he was 9 until he turned 18. His brother, Philip, 36, said he was abused by the priest, for whom he was named, from age 12 to 17.

Msgr. Rigney, 85, of Palm Beach County, Fla., has denied any wrongdoing, as has the diocese.

Attorneys for the Youngs had asked Himmelberger to allow the case to proceed despite the statute of limitations. In 12 days of hearings, attorneys for the church argued that the suit should be tossed out and that the statute of limitations should be strictly applied.

The Youngs are among 18 plaintiffs who have sued the Camden diocese, contending that they were sexually assaulted by priests and alleging that the church tolerated such abuse for decades and conspired to cover it up. The lawsuit names 21 priests and other high-ranking church officials, including four bishops, all of whom are deceased.

A cadre of church lawyers - 12 in all - sought to have the Youngs' case thrown out. In sometimes withering cross-examination, attorneys for the church questioned the Youngs' motivation for bringing the suit, suggested that they were not good Catholics, and attacked their credibility by pointing out inconsistencies between their courtroom testimony and statements made earlier in depositions.

New Jersey law generally requires that lawsuits over childhood sexual abuse be filed by the time the victim reaches 20. There is an exception for cases in which people can show that they did not understand the harm until years later or that duress, insanity or other valid reasons prevented them from filing a claim sooner.

The Youngs contended that they did fully understand the harm caused by the abuse for many years, and they maintained that their devotion to the church was so strong that it amounted to "religious duress" and rendered them incapable of taking legal action. They said they reported the abuse in 1984 to Camden Bishop George H. Guilfoyle. He warned them not to go to authorities or even to talk about it because that could harm them and the church, the Youngs said.

The Youngs filed their lawsuit after reading a newspaper account of a lawsuit involving allegations of sexual abuse by priests in the Camden diocese, including Msgr. Rigney. The article noted that between 1990 and 1994, the diocese had paid $3.2 million to settle such claims.

Judge Himmelberger, in his ruling, said he believed that the Youngs' suit was motivated in part by money, although the brothers denied that on the stand.

"Of course it's about money," the judge said. "If it's not, then perhaps they've accomplished their goals. Priestly abuse has now attracted the attention of the church at the highest level."

Andy Walton, a spokesman for the diocese, said the church had agreed to pay for counseling for the Youngs to help "wipe away the tremendous hurt the Young family feels."

On Friday, the judge, despite his expressions of compassion for the Youngs, told a packed courtroom that he saw no reason to extend the statute of limitations in the case. He said he believed the Youngs understood all along that the abuse was wrong, and he said they were free to bring a lawsuit at any time.

The judge rejected the Youngs' claim of religious duress, calling that "a new concept for avoiding the statute of limitations." Moreover, he said, he did not believe that the Youngs were as religious as they professed to be, noting that both had stopped going to Mass regularly when they were 17 or 18.

Himmelberger dismissed the Youngs' contention that the bishop's admonition had prevented them from exercising their legal rights.

"They were not threatened with bodily harm, nor were they threatened with everlasting damnation," he said. "I do not think that the average individual would have been paralyzed into inaction by the words of the bishop."

Outside the courtroom, Stephen C. Rubino, one of the Youngs' attorneys, said he disagreed with the judge's ruling and would appeal. But he lauded the judge for criticizing the church's legal tactics, which he called "an outrage."

"We've just spent eight years making sure that the merits of this claim did not see the inside of a courtroom," Rubino said. "... The Diocese of Camden has lost its moral compass on how these cases are defended. Legal hardball based on the facts of this case is wrong."

 
 

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