Judge Rejects Man's Claim in Priest Sex-Abuse Lawsuit
Time Ran out to Sue a Priest and the Camden Diocese, a Judge Said. the Ruling Is a Setback for a Case That Had 19 Plaintiffs
By Nancy Phillips
November 5, 2002
A man who says he was raped by a South Jersey priest at age 14 cannot sue the priest or the church because he waited too long to file his claim, a judge ruled yesterday.
Peter Pfister, 41, of Lakeland, Fla., sued the Roman Catholic Diocese of Camden in 1994, contending that he had been sexually assaulted by Msgr. Philip Rigney, who offered to take him in after he ran away from home as a teenager.
Pfister said he fled his Camden home three times because his father, now deceased, had beaten him. When his parents sought to have him held in a juvenile-detention facility, Msgr. Rigney intervened and - with a judge's permission - invited the young man to stay with him at the rectory of the family's parish, St. Joseph's Pro Cathedral in Camden.
It was there, in the fall of 1975, Pfister said, that the priest fondled him, forced him to perform oral sex, and sodomized him.
Pfister is the third plaintiff to claim that he was abused years ago by Msgr. Rigney, who was a Camden diocese priest in the 1970s and 1980s. Now 85, retired, and living in Singer Island, Fla., the priest has denied any wrongdoing. He could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Pfister, who had been one of 19 plaintiffs in a suit against the church and the priest, said he repressed the memory of the abuse until it came back "in a flood of memories" at a psychotherapy session in 1993. By that time, the statute of limitations, which generally requires a plaintiff to file a suit by age 20, had expired, but Pfister asked the court to allow the case to proceed in spite of that. He argued that the repression of his memory had impeded his ability to file a timely claim.
Yesterday, Judge John G. Himmelberger Jr. of state Superior Court in Atlantic County rejected that argument.
"I simply am not convinced... that there is such a phenomenon of repressed memory," Himmelberger said. "I do not accept the notion that one can completely forget that which would otherwise be an unforgettable and traumatic event in one's life.
"Sexual molestation by a grown man - a priest - would be a traumatic event for a 14-year-old boy," he said. "It's hard to believe that such a boy would not remember it."
The judge's ruling is the latest setback for the suit filed by 19 plaintiffs, including Pfister, who say they were sexually abused as children by priests in the Camden Diocese. The suit contends that church officials tolerated and concealed such behavior for decades. Lawyers for the diocese have strongly denied that. They point out that Pfister and other plaintiffs did not sue until after The Inquirer reported that the diocese had paid $3.2 million to settle other sex-abuse cases.
In a series of hard-fought court hearings that began this spring, the church's lawyers have argued that the plaintiffs' claims should be tossed out of court rather than heard on their merits because, with few exceptions, the cases were filed after the statute of limitations had expired. Himmelberger has heard arguments in three cases involving five plaintiffs so far and has dismissed all three - including those of two brothers who claimed that Msgr. Rigney abused them. Appeals are pending.
In court yesterday, one of Pfister's lawyers, Lewis R. Bornstein, sat alone at the plaintiff's table. Across the room, six lawyers assembled on behalf of the church and various former diocesan officials, along with a lawyer for Msgr. Rigney and a public-relations consultant hired by the diocese's lead law firm.
Other than one reporter, there were no spectators. The muted scene in the nearly empty courtroom stood in contrast to the spectacle that marked earlier court hearings, which drew television crews and national media attention at the height of the nationwide sex-abuse scandal in the church.
Pfister, who was not in court yesterday, said that he was disheartened but that he understood that Himmelberger had to follow the law. "The statute of limitations is half the problem," Pfister said in a telephone interview. "... He's doing his job. He's bound by the legislature."
A measure that would extend the statute of limitations in sex-abuse cases is pending in the state legislature. Under current law, such suits must be filed by the time the victim reaches 20. There is an exception for people who can show that they did not understand the harm until years later or that duress, insanity, or some other valid reason prevented them from filing sooner.
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