Lawsuits Allege Dioceses Reinjured Sex-Abuse Victims
Complaints about Clergy in the Phila. and Allentown Areas Say Concealment of Crimes Added Trauma
By David O'Reilly
May 12, 2004
Using a legal strategy untested in Pennsylvania, a Berks County law firm yesterday said it had filed six more lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and two against the Diocese of Allentown for allegedly allowing and concealing clergy sexual abuse.
The suits were brought by eight men who say they were sexually abused as minors, mostly in the 1980s. None of the six priests and one former nun identified as the perpetrators is serving in public ministry.
Although Pennsylvania law usually bars sex-abuse cases brought after a victim turns 30, an attorney for the eight plaintiffs said he would argue that his clients were traumatized anew by recent revelations that Roman Catholic dioceses had systematically concealed and reassigned abusive priests.
"The victims suffered harm when they found out the dioceses had misrepresented their knowledge" of abuse patterns, lawyer Jay Abramowitch said in a telephone interview. "This created new injury that exacerbated the old injury."
Abramowitch's clients are seeking monetary damages based on the new injuries, he said.
"The approach isn't new, but the application is," said Abramowitch, a personal-injury lawyer who has hitherto specialized in medical malpractice law.
The suits seek damages not from the alleged perpetrators but from the diocese and archdiocese, which are named as defendants. Also named as defendants are Philadelphia's retired archbishop, Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua; Allentown Bishop Edward P. Cullen; and Allentown's former prelate, Bishop Thomas J. Welsh.
In Philadelphia, the priests identified as abusers are the Revs. Joseph Gausch, Gerard Chambers, John Trotter, and Francis X. Trauger. All but Trotter have been named in previous suits filed by the firm.
Two of the plaintiffs say Gausch molested them when they were members of Good Shepherd parish in Philadelphia. He died in 1999.
The former religious sister is Eileen Rhoads, who taught as a lay teacher at Holy Cross parochial school in Springfield, Delaware County, until 1994. One of the plaintiffs in the suits filed yesterday said she had sexual intercourse with him about 40 times. Rhoads is awaiting trial in Virginia on felony sexual-assault charges involving a 10-year-old boy.
Chambers' accuser alleges that the priest molested him at the former St. Gregory's parish. Chambers died in 1974.
Trotter's accuser said the abuse occurred at St. Peter's parish.
Catherine Rossi, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, said the archdiocese has no record of a John Trotter ever working as a priest in the archdiocese. Abramowitch said he believed the name was correct.
Trauger, accused yesterday of abusing a boy at St. Leo's parish, was among four priests whom the archdiocese removed from ministry last year because of credible abuse charges against him.
Rossi said the archdiocese had not had sufficient time to review the suits.
The suit also identifies the Rev. Gabriel M. Patil, provincial superior of the Barnabite Fathers who once worked in Bethlehem, and the Rev. Richard Giuliani, formerly on the faculty of Cardinal Brennan High School in Schuylkill County. He resigned the priesthood 27 years ago.
Matt Kerr, spokesman for the diocese, said in a prepared statement that a 2002 study by the district attorneys of the five counties in the diocese had found "no evidence that church administrators hindered prosecution" or "violated any laws" related to clergy sex abuse of minors.
Yesterday's filings were the fifth, involving a total of 25 plaintiffs, that the Wyomissing firm of Leisawitz, Heller, Abramowitch, Phillips has filed since Jan. 12 against the diocese and archdiocese.
Abramowitch said he expected that church lawyers would challenge the "new injury" strategy, and that appeals courts would have to rule on its validity before the cases can come to trial.
His firm has now filed 15 suits against the Philadelphia Archdiocese and 20 against the Allentown Diocese in Schuylkill and Lehigh Counties.
He said his firm also represented about 25 more clients alleging abuse by Catholic clergy of Pennsylvania. It is working in cooperation with Altoona lawyer Richard Serbin, who is using the same new-injury strategy to circumvent Pennsylvania's statute of limitations on child sex abuse.
Pennsylvania law does not have a "late discovery" provision that allows abuse victims older than 30 to sue on the basis that they had repressed memory of their abuse or only recently had recognized the psychological damage caused by the molestations in their youth.
The absence of a late-discovery exception in Pennsylvania has frustrated lawyers and victims wanting to sue their abusers.
Stephen Rubino, a nationally prominent New Jersey lawyer who specializes in sex-abuse cases - but who has avoided trying cases in Pennsylvania - yesterday hailed Abramowitch's tactic.
"It holds water," he said.
Dioceses "can't tell the courts, 'Oh, they waited too long' to file, and ignore the fact that they covered it up in the first place."
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