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  Clergy-Abuse Plaintiffs Forced to Answer Intimate Questions

By Nancy Phillips
The Philadelphia Inquirer
May 20, 2002

Even as Camden Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio preaches compassion for victims of childhood sexual abuse, the church is taking a markedly different approach inside a third-floor courtroom in Atlantic County.

Last week, a lawyer for the church asked one man who has sued whether he became aroused when a priest fondled him and whether he had ejaculated when the priest performed oral sex on him. He asked the man whether he had masturbated as a teenager and asked him detailed questions about his intimate relationship with his wife.

The diocese's lawyers have spent weeks jousting with plaintiffs in a long-running lawsuit against the church and fighting to keep the case from going to trial.

Earlier this month, Judge John G. Himmelberger Jr. of Atlantic County Superior Court, even while handing down a ruling in favor of the church, decried its legal tactics and rebuked the defense lawyers.

"Even though the church was within its legal rights to vigorously defend itself, it seems to me that the church's position in this litigation is at odds with its stance as a moral force in society," he said. "From where I sit, playing legal hardball doesn't seem quite right."

The church's position is that it is being sued and it has the right to defend itself.

Eighteen plaintiffs have sued the Camden Diocese, alleging that they were sexually abused by priests and contending that the church tolerated such conduct for decades and conspired to cover it up.

Lawyers for the diocese say the church was unaware of such abuse and would not have condoned it.

Because the suit was filed after the statute of limitations for such claims had expired, the plaintiffs' lawyers have asked the judge to make an exception to the law.

Last week, Mark Depman, an emergency-room doctor from Guilford, Conn., testified that he was sexually assaulted by the Rev. John P. Kelly beginning when he was 13. A year or so later, Depman said, he was fondled by the Rev. Charles McColgan in a steam room at a Philadelphia bathhouse.

Father Kelly and Father McColgan are deceased. Lawyers for their estates have denied the abuse.

Depman, 47, and his brother, John, 45, sued the diocese in 1994. Mark Depman said he was molested from 1967 to 1970, but he said it was not until 1993 that he recognized that what had happened to him as a teenager amounted to sexual abuse and had harmed him.

Depman spent more than 11 hours over four days under cross-examination by Joseph H. Kenney, the lead lawyer for the diocese. Kenney asked Depman to spell out in detail where, when and how the alleged sex acts occurred and to explain whether they had given him pleasure.

Kenney has declined to comment about the case. Publicists for his law firm say the questions about sex, while intrusive, are relevant.

"Part of what [Depman] is saying is that he didn't know these acts with the priests were sex acts," said Brian P. Tierney, whose public-relations agency represents the law firm. "... He's saying, 'I didn't know, even though I'm a Harvard-educated doctor, that these things were wrong until 1994,' which is kind of preposterous... . He's one of the brightest guys you can imagine, and yet he wants us to believe that he doesn't have the understanding that a reasonable man would have."

Tierney said the questioning was difficult for Kenney, who is 69.

"He's forced to use words he's blushing to use. The guy is an old-school and conservative person, but you get across this door and it becomes a different issue," said Tierney, gesturing to the entrance to the courtroom.

"But that's how the truth comes out."

The tone of the questions and the nature of the inquiry left lawyers for the plaintiffs and even seasoned court officers shaking their heads. The plaintiffs' lawyers, however, rarely objected.

The sometimes stinging cross-examination of Depman was a reprise of tactics that church lawyers used in an earlier case brought by Robert and Philip Young, two brothers who said they were sexually abused by a priest when they were teenagers. In those proceedings, Kenney questioned the Youngs' motivation in filing the lawsuit and tried to undermine their claim that they were good Catholics.

Himmelberger dismissed the case, saying the Youngs had waited too long to sue the diocese over abuse they say they suffered at the hands of Msgr. Philip T. Rigney. The priest has denied any wrongdoing.

Stephen C. Rubino, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, joined Himmelberger in condemning the tactics of church lawyers and said their conduct demonstrated that the Camden Diocese had "lost its moral compass on how these cases are defended."

The latest legal battle comes at a time when the church has taken steps to reach out to victims of sexual abuse. The diocese has assembled a panel of lay people to examine all such claims and it has offered to pay for counseling for anyone who claims abuse by a member of the clergy.

And its lawyers - seven in all - will be back in court this morning seeking to defeat the Depmans' legal claims. The diocese will continue to contest the claims of other plaintiffs in the suit, which alleges widespread abuse by more than a dozen priests dating back decades.

"There is no inconsistency between a church of compassion and the church's right - and in fact in this case, obligation - to defend itself against claims that do not have merit," said Andy Walton, a spokesman for the diocese, which is made up of about 450,000 Catholics and stretches from the Delaware River to the Jersey Shore.

Bishop DiMarzio, in an opinion piece written for the Press of Atlantic City, wrote that the diocese "unequivocally" denounced the sexual abuse of children and was committed to taking steps to eradicate it. However, he said, the diocese would continue to contest the lawsuit, which he said sought "tens of millions of dollars" in damages.

"It is always our preference to meet with victims of abuse and offer care, counseling and compassion outside the courtroom," Bishop DiMarzio wrote. "... That does not mean that we do not defend ourselves when we are sued."

 
 

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