Suit Alleging Sexual Abuse by Priest Is Dismissedjudge Rules Statute of Limitations Expired
By Steven G. Vegh
October 2, 2004
VIRGINIA BEACH -- A $5.3 million lawsuit accusing the Richmond diocese, a Catholic priest and a now-retired bishop of liability in child sexual abuse decades ago was dismissed Friday by Circuit Judge Edward W. Hanson Jr., who ruled that the statute of limitations had expired.
William Bruce Jeter , a 46-year-old Norfolk resident, had filed the suit last October , naming the Rev. John E. Leonard as his abuser. He also accused Bishop Walter F. Sullivan , who ran the Richmond diocese from 1973 until his retirement last fall, of covering up and not investigating incidents of abuse.
Neither Leonard nor Sullivan attended Friday's hearing.
The suit stated that Jeter was sexually abused by Leonard as a teenage student in 1973 and 1974 at St. John Vianney Seminary. At the time, Leonard was on the faculty of the Catholic boys' boarding school, which was in Goochland County, west of Richmond.
At issue in Friday's court hearing was whether Jeter's suit was filed after the deadline set by state law for personal-injury suits. Such cases generally must be filed within two years of when the harmful action occurred; anyone injured as a minor must file suit within two years after turning 18.
But in sexual-abuse cases where victims don't always immediately realize they have been harmed, the law says the two-year deadline starts, instead, when a doctor or psychologist first tells victims that their suffering was caused by the abuse.
According to Jeter's suit, the abuse by Leonard eventually caused anxiety, depression and other traumas for which he still is being treated.
Jeter contended that even as an adult, he did not recognize the link between the abuse and his psychological suffering. That connection only became clear during counseling with a therapist in the two years before the suit was filed, the suit stated.
But William F. Etherington , the attorney representing the diocese and Sullivan, said on Friday that Jeter's medical records, as well as letters he sent to the diocese and Leonard, showed that as early as 1996 , he thought he was suffering from trauma caused by the alleged abuse.
It was at that point that the two-year time limit began running down for Jeter, Etherington said. James C. Roberts , Leonard's attorney, agreed.
Stephen C. Swain , Jeter's attorney, argued that by the late 1990s, Jeter was aware that the alleged abuse had harmed him in certain ways, such as destroying his ability to trust people. But Swain said Jeter was unaware of other disorders he suffered as a result of the abuse until a therapist told him about the connection in August 2002.
In his suit, Jeter also contended that he was unable to understand his psychological injuries and their root source until recently because he had suppressed memories of the abuse.
It's a claim often made in child sex-abuse cases, said Anne Coughlin , a University of Virginia law professor who studies sex crimes.
"There seems to be a lot of expert testimony that the mind can do this, does it with some degree of frequency," she said.
"This is an issue that all the states have had to reckon with, and there's robust debate over whether repressed memory claims are accurate," she said.
Etherington said Friday that Jeter's medical records and correspondence from the 1990s showed that he recalled childhood sexual abuse.
In his ruling, Hanson said that it was obvious from documentary evidence that Jeter's disorders had been diagnosed in 1996 and that Jeter had been informed of both the diagnosis and the root cause of the traumas then.
Afterward, looking dejected and resigned, Jeter criticized the diocese's resistance to his suit.
"They don't care about the victims - they care about technicalities," he said. "They abuse us when we're young and then take us to court and abuse us again over technicalities."
The diocese's legal argument for dismissal was condemned on Wednesday by a national victims' advocacy group, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
"Don't use an archaic, rigid, legal technicality to evade your responsibility and delay or prevent healing for Bruce Jeter, who has already suffered immeasurably," the group stated in a letter to Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo , Sullivan's successor.
Etherington said that raising questions about the statute of limitations was legitimate and that the diocese was entitled to the same defensive arguments available to any other group or person.
Coughlin said that cases like Jeter's juxtapose competing axioms cherished by the legal system.
On the one hand, people who think they have been injured have a right to seek compensation through the courts. On the other hand, she said, that same system values fresh evidence and testimony. The statute of limitations reflects the need for people to file complaints in court within a reasonable period of time.
Abuse allegations about Leonard were investigated by the diocese in 1996 , after Jeter complained to the diocese, and in 2002 , after several former Vianney students reported to the diocese that they also had been abused during their school years.
Leonard, who also was principal at the then-Norfolk Catholic High School in the late 1980s and early 1990s, denied any wrongdoing and was cleared by the diocese after each inquiry .
But Goochland authorities launched a criminal investigation in August 2002 .
The result was a court-approved plea agreement this January in which Leonard was convicted on twin charges of assaulting two teenage boys in the 1970s.
In exchange, felony sex charges against Leonard were dropped, although the prosecutor said he thought Leonard committed the abuse described by victims.
Two days after his conviction, Leonard resigned as the parish priest at St. Michael Catholic Church in Henrico County and retired from active ministry.
Five Richmond diocese priests accused of abuse have been expelled from ministry since the Catholic clergy abuse scandal broke across the United States in 2002.
Although Etherington said that "pastoral outreach" from the diocese always has been available to Jeter, a diocesan spokesman said in 2003 that the diocese has provided victim counseling only in cases where the accused priest admitted committing sex abuse - something Leonard has not done.
Last month, DiLorenzo appointed three victim assistance coordinators to be liaisons to people who report they were sexually abused by clergy or other diocesan employees.
According to the diocese, the new appointments fulfill one of the requirements in a child-protection charter that U.S. Catholic bishops adopted in 2002 at the height of the sexual abuse scandal.
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