Panel Rules Priest Sex Abuse Suits Filed Late
Though the judges found the diocese's failure to protect its young parishioners "shocking and irresponsible," they said the men's claim that they were harmed again in 2002 when they learned the diocese had transferred some abusive priests to other communities wasn't an issue.
The cases only concerned the statute of limitations, the judges said.
A lawyer for the two men plans to appeal the ruling to the state Superior Court, which has scheduled a Feb. 16 hearing to determine the course of similar suits across Pennsylvania.
Superior Court rebuffed the diocese last fall, refusing to hear arguments that Lehigh County lawsuits alleging sexual abuse shouldn't be allowed to proceed because the statute of limitations for filing them had expired.
The panel of six Schuylkill judges, without dissension, ruled in identical 22-page opinions Tuesday that Vincent Catizone Jr. of Girardville and Scott Greis of Schuylkill County waited too long -- more than 20 years -- to file their suits.
Their attorney, Jay N. Abramowitch of Wyomissing, near Reading, and colleague Richard Serbin of Altoona sued the diocese and Bishop Edward P. Cullen and retired Bishop Thomas J. Welsh because the two-year statute of limitations against individual priests had passed.
The Schuylkill cases involve the Rev. Francis J. McNelis, who retired in 2002 and is living in Holy Family Villa in Bethlehem, and the late Monsignor William E. Jones, a former pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church, Minersville.
"We are disappointed in the finding," Abramowitch said.
Greis and Catizone couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday.
Diocese attorney Joseph F. Leeson Jr. of Bethlehem, noting that none of the judges dissented, called their opinions "strong and emphatic. I think they are scholarly and well-reasoned opinions that are based on the law."
Each of the two suits, filed in January 2004, consists of 12 counts and seeks monetary awards of more than $50,000 for each count.
The Schuylkill panel agreed with the diocese that the two-year deadline to file a civil lawsuit seeking money for injuries had elapsed. The alleged incidents began in 1966 for Greis, then 10, and in 1978 for Catizone, then 14.
The panel ruled that the statute "has been consistently applied to other cases in Pennsylvania" and dismissed the claims.
Catizone and Greis also alleged in their suits that the diocese and bishops had a duty to report the abuse, according to 1994 legislation that requires clergy to report sexual abuse.
The panel ruled that the law could not be applied retroactively.
"At the time of the events at issue, members of the clergy were not responsible under the [law] to report suspicions of child abuse," the panel ruled.
When the Schuylkill judges heard arguments in October, Abramowitch said his clients didn't discover until 2002, through the media, that the diocese had harmed them by hiding incidents of sexual abuse, and that is when the two-year period started.
Leeson said the fact a wrongdoing was publicly disclosed has no legal bearing on incidents that happened many years ago.
The suits also alleged that Greis and Catizone were harmed again in April 2002, "when the Catholic Church revealed it had a policy of relocating sexually abusive priests to other communities, and that the church chose not to report these incidents to the police because, at the time, the law did not require it."
The transfer of priests known to have molested children was not an issue in Greis' and Catizone's cases, the judges said, "however shocking and irresponsible we may consider the diocese's failure to protect its child parishioners."
Serving on the Schuylkill panel were President Judge William Baldwin and Judges Jacqueline Russell, E. Michael Stine, Cyrus Palmer Dolbin, John Domalakes and Charles M. Miller.
Catizone, who was 10 in 1966 when McNelis allegedly began to abuse him, was an altar boy and parishioner at St. Joseph's in Girardville, according to his suit.
The suit says McNelis performed sex acts on Catizone in his bedroom, his car, the rectory garage and other rooms in the rectory, and that the abuse continued for two to three years until Catizone was 13.
Greis alleges Jones fondled him and performed oral sex on him on numerous occasions beginning in 1978. Once, the suit says, Jones and another priest performed oral sex on Greis and several other boys on a trip to Jones' home in Tower City. Jones died in May.
Six similar cases, also filed by Abramowitch and Serbin, are pending in Lehigh County Court. Last June, three Lehigh judges declined to dismiss the suits.
In November, Superior Court chose not to hear the diocese's arguments that the Lehigh County lawsuits shouldn't be allowed to proceed. The court rejected the diocese's appeal of that decision, Leeson said.
At the hearing next month, Superior Court will consider appeals in similar cases stemming from a Philadelphia case, Abramowitch said.
"That ruling would be binding on cases in all the counties," he said.
In Philadelphia, a county judge threw out priest sexual abuse suits filed against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, saying the statute of limitations had expired.
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