|Church in Jeopardy
of More Suits
Bill Would Provide No Time Limit for Alleged Abuse Victims to Act
By Patricia Montemurri
The trauma of those who say they were sexually abused by Catholic priests is spurring moves in the Michigan Legislature and state courts that could open the floodgates to lawsuits seeking monetary damages from the church.
Michigan law generally requires people who claim they were sexually abused as children to seek civil damages before they turn 19. But a Republican Michigan legislator and some lawyers contend the revelations stemming from the Catholic abuse scandal call for drastic remedies that could cost Michigan's seven dioceses millions of dollars.
A state legislator, prompted by his chief of staff who says he was molested at a Catholic monastery, is preparing legislation to allow people to sue for money regardless of how long ago the misconduct occurred. It would go further than a California law that gives alleged victims until the end of 2003 to sue.
Also, a Michigan Court of Appeals panel said last week that it will hear arguments on whether the Archdiocese of Detroit engaged in "fraudulent concealment" when it reassigned the Rev. Robert Burkholder, who was labeled Michigan's worst pedophile priest by Wayne County Prosecutor Michael Duggan.
If the appeals court rules in favor of the unnamed plaintiff, who alleges that Burkholder repeatedly abused him in the 1970s, it could pave the way for other victims of long-ago abuse to seek civil damages.
And today, onetime altar boys from Hazel Park and Flushing who served mass with imprisoned ex-priest Jason Sigler are expected to file a civil suit in Wayne County.
Their lawyers include Jeffrey Anderson of Minnesota, who has made a specialty of suing the Catholic Church over abuse. The suit will argue that diocesan officials in Detroit, Lansing and New Mexico, where Sigler received treatment, knowingly hosted a predator priest.
"I can't comment on a lawsuit that I haven't seen. And I can't comment on legislation that I haven't seen," Archdiocese of Detroit spokesman Ned McGrath said Monday. "I'm not going to speculate on what people say they might do."
Mark Powell, chief of staff for state Rep. StephenEhardt, R-Lexington, said that his job puts him in position to help right the wrongs done to abuse victims who didn't come forward until recently. Powell, 43, said he was molested as a seminarian studying in a monastery in Davenport, Iowa, and the Iowa diocese is paying for his therapy to deal with lasting scars.
Powell said he is helping to prepare legislation to be introduced next month that would abolish Michigan's statute of limitations on civil suits stemming from past abuse charges. Powell said he wants the legislation to be open-ended.
"Whenever this occurred in your life -- if it happened in 1952 -- come forward," Powell said Monday.
Powell said the legislation would apply to all victims of abuse, not just those naming Catholic clerics. It also may apply to teachers, counselors and others in authority over children.
"Why I'm here, I think, is to help my fellow brothers and sisters who've been abused by people in religious authority, regardless of which denomination," Powell said of his efforts to draft the legislation.
Powell is bringing abuse victims to Lansing on Wednesday to meet with key legislators.
It has been difficult to assess the extent of the abuse problem in Michigan. Since March 2002, at least 39 Catholic priests in Michigan -- including 19 in the Detroit archdiocese -- have been removed from public ministry because of allegations of sexual misconduct involving minors, according to a Free Press survey. But those numbers don't reflect priests who were removed from ministry years earlier.
Michigan dioceses, along with others across the nation, are answering surveys commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to document every complaint of abuse dating to 1950. The details of those surveys are supposed to remain confidential -- although the bishops say they'll release an overview when the analysis is completed, perhaps by the end of the year, the Bishops Conference said.
The revelations of clergy sex abuse have spurred numerous lawsuits and settlements in other states. A year ago, the Detroit archdiocese disclosed that it had paid about $950,000 from 1988 to 2002 in six settlements to people abused by priests.
Southfield attorney Cyril Weiner represents the plaintiff -- identified only as John Doe in court papers -- in the lawsuit against the archdiocese about retired priest Burkholder. Weiner said Monday that he has been approached by several people who also said they were abused by Burkholder and other priests.
Weiner argues in the suit that the Detroit archdiocese was aware of Burkholder's abuse and became a partner in his crimes by fraudulently concealing complaints against him. Burkholder, now in his 80s, served 30 days in jail last year after he was convicted of past abuse.
In the coming months, a state appeals court panel will review Weiner's arguments to determine whether his client's case can proceed, despite the statute of limitations.
McGrath said the Detroit archdiocese is fighting the suit because it "felt the law was not appropriately applied."
Similarly, two victims of ex-priest Sigler say they were abused because the Catholic Church engaged in the fraudulent concealment of Sigler's pedophile proclivities, said attorney Justin Ravitz, who represents the two men.
Sigler, who grew up in River Rouge but was ordained in Canada, has a history of abuse complaints, of receiving treatment and then being placed in parish settings -- where abuse happened again.
Antonio Otero Jr. of Macomb Township was an altar boy at St. Robert Church in Flushing in the mid-1970s when he was abused. Sigler admitted abusing Otero when he was sentenced last week in a Genesee County court to 7 to 15 years in prison. Michael Reinhardt, who was an altar boy at St. Mary Magdalen Church in Hazel Park, was one of two victims who said Sigler molested them in Wayne County, where Sigler received a 1-year sentence in January for the long-ago abuse. Church officials in New Mexico previously paid multimillion-dollar settlements to Sigler victims.
Both Burkholder and Sigler were prosecuted because they moved out of state after the abuse occurred, which stopped the clock running on the state's criminal statute of limitations. But prosecutors were unable to bring charges against priests in other cases because the alleged offenses happened so long ago.
[Contact Patricia Montemurri at 313-223-4538 or email@example.com]
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