Brothers' Sex-Abuse Lawsuit against Church Is Dismissed;
A Judge Said the Two Men Waited Too Long to Sue over Alleged Abuse by Priest Decades Ago
By Nancy Phillips
June 21, 2002
Two brothers who say they suffered years of sexual abuse at the hands of several priests lost a bid to sue the Diocese of Camden yesterday when a judge ruled that they had waited too long to bring their claim.
Mark and John Depman filed a lawsuit in 1994, alleging that they had been molested as teenagers and claiming that the church had long known of and tolerated such conduct by priests.
They are among 21 people who have sued the Camden diocese alleging sexual assaults by priests dating back decades. A previous case by another set of brothers had already been dismissed.
Judge John G. Himmelberger Jr. of Atlantic County Superior Court dismissed the Depmans' suit yesterday because it was filed years after the statute of limitations had expired.
"The statute must bar such claims," the judge said. "... It cannot be ignored - at least until the legislature acts to abrogate it, if that's the legislature's will."
Two bills that would abolish the statute of limitations on lawsuits that allege childhood sexual abuse are pending in the state legislature.
Under current law, civil claims in sexual abuse cases must by filed by the time the victim is 20. An exception allows a judge to extend the deadline for people who can show that they were under duress or did not realize until years later that they had been harmed.
The Depmans testified that they did not understand at the time that what was happening to them amounted to sexual abuse and was wrong. Nor did they appreciate the extent of the harm it caused, they said.
Lawyers for the diocese argued that the brothers understood all along that the sexual assaults had harmed them and that they should have filed suit sooner.
Mark Depman, 47, an emergency-room doctor from Guilford, Conn., testified that the Rev. John P. Kelly had sexually assaulted him from the time he was 13 until he was 16. Depman said he also was assaulted by the Rev. Charles P. McColgan in a steam room at a Philadelphia bathhouse. And he said a third priest, the Rev. Norman T. Connelly, had shown him pornographic materials in the church rectory.
Father Kelly and Father McColgan are deceased. Lawyers for their estates deny the abuse. Through his lawyer, Father Connelly has denied any wrongdoing.
John Depman, 46, the president of an engineering firm who lives in Belair, Md., testified that he, too, had been molested by Father Kelly - a family friend - beginning when he was 12 years old.
He said the Rev. Joseph Shannon had sodomized him at his family's vacation home in Brigantine. And he said Father Connelly took him and other teenagers to a Philadelphia bathhouse, where they played volleyball and basketball in the nude.
A lawyer for Father Kelly's estate denied the abuse. Through their lawyers, Father Connelly and Father Shannon denied any wrongdoing.
John Depman said he looked up to the priests and did not know what to make of the sexual contact.
"At the time it was occurring, I understood it to be nothing more than an affectionate relationship with somebody that I absolutely revered," he testified.
In his ruling, Himmelberger said he found that difficult to believe.
"They have not convinced me that they did not appreciate that what the priests did to them was wrong," the judge said. He said he believed both brothers understood the harm years before they filed the lawsuit and thus, should have come to court sooner.
A spokesman for the diocese yesterday lauded the judge's ruling, but added: "It will not wipe away the tremendous hurt the Depman family feels." Andrew J. Walton, the diocesan spokesman, said the church had offered to pay for counseling for the Depmans.
The diocese clearly was expecting a win yesterday. Walton appeared in court with a press release on the judge's favorable ruling already prepared for reporters.
Himmelberger's decision brings to four the number of plaintiffs in the case whose claims he has dismissed. Last month, he tossed out a lawsuit brought by Robert and Philip Young, who said they were sexually abused by a priest when they were teenagers. That suit, too, was filed after the statute of limitations had expired, and Himmelberger declined to make an exception to the law and allow it to proceed.
The Depmans said they would consider an appeal.
Mark Depman wept as the judge spoke of the abuse Depman had suffered as a teenager.
"It burns and sears through me every time I hear it," he said outside the courtroom. "It's almost like I'm watching a movie that I can't quite believe is my story."
Despite the legal setback, Depman said he believed that he and his brother were helping other victims by highlighting how difficult it is to come to terms with the effects of childhood sexual abuse.
"The trauma inflicted by these priests damaged brains and souls, and there's no limit on how long it takes to put those pieces together," he said. "... You don't want childhood sexual abuse to be a life sentence. You have to give people as long as it takes to figure it out, and I believe our testimony spoke clearly and urgently to that issue."
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