|Church Seeks Dismissal
of Sex Abuse Claims against Former Priests
By Todd Dvorak
DAVENPORT -- Attorneys for two former Roman Catholic priests named in sexual abuse lawsuits argued Thursday that the claims should be dismissed because the statute of limitations has expired.
The allegations against the Rev. James Janssen and Rev. Francis Bass, both 82, date back to the late 1950s. The lawsuits also name the Diocese of Davenport.
In a hearing in Scott County District Court, attorneys for the priests asked Judge C.H. Pelton to toss out the cases because the allegations are more than 30 years old. They cited lost evidence, timeworn memories of potential witnesses and state law that sets legal deadlines for filing sexual abuse lawsuits.
"It's clear the plaintiffs' claims have not been filed in a timely fashion under Iowa law," said Steven Berger, the attorney for Janssen.
At least 16 sexual abuse lawsuits have been filed against the diocese and a handful of priests who ministered in its parishes since 1950.
Thousands of similar lawsuits -- many stemming from decades-old allegations -- have been filed nationwide in the past two years as a sex abuse scandal swept the Catholic Church.
Dioceses across the nation have made similar arguments about the age of the allegations with varying results. In Kentucky, a mediator is working on a compensation fund in the nation's first class-action lawsuit filed against a diocese by victims of sexual abuse. Claims date back to 1956.
Attorneys for the Davenport diocese cited two Iowa laws that set deadlines on such claims. At the time of the alleged abuse, victims had two years to file a claim, though childhood victims were allowed one year after turning 18. In 1997, the Iowa Legislature gave victims up to four years to file a claim after a traumatic act, but attorneys say the law was not designed to be applied retroactively.
One lawsuit at the center of Thursday's hearing accuses Janssen of sexually abusing the victim on multiple occasions from 1953 to 1962, causing severe mental and emotional problems. It also accuses church officials of covering up Janssen's activities and failing to discipline the priest despite knowing of his activities.
In the other, a man accuses Bass of sexual abuse, one of two cases against the priest who retired in 1992.
Both priests deny the allegations, but both are among a group of five church leaders the diocese recently asked the Vatican to laicize, or defrock.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs said the 1997 law allows victims with mental illness or disability more time to file claims, specifically from the time they recall the abusive activity.
They also argued that the statue of limitations does not apply considering the dioceses' history of keeping secret or covering up allegations against its priests.
Attorneys also argued whether plaintiffs could present testimony from Rev. Thomas Doyle, an expert in canon law hired by the plaintiffs. He said he has consulted in more than 700 church abuse cases in the United States and Europe.
After reviewing case records and evidence, Doyle testified that the efforts by the Davenport Diocese to conceal allegations was among the worst he has ever seen.
"Of all the cases I've dealt with, I would put (the Davenport Diocese) at No. 3 of the worst," Doyle said.
In a letter to parishioners issued Thursday, Bishop William E. Franklin said the diocese offered in February to enter into mediation outside the courtroom.
He said the diocese must defend itself against the lawsuits, which seek millions of dollars in damages, and is obliged "to be a good steward for the people of the Diocese of Davenport and to defend itself from bankruptcy."
"The Diocese must resist huge award payments to a few that will restrict the Diocese from providing services to others. The Diocese believes that asking current members of the Church to pay large damage awards for misconduct that occurred decades ago is unfair," Franklin wrote.
In a separate statement, the diocese said it has learned that a plaintiff who originally filed a lawsuit in Clinton County claiming he had been abused by Janssen during a trip to San Diego 35 years ago also has filed a lawsuit in California.
The lawsuit was filed Dec. 30, one day before the expiration of a California law that suspended the statute of limitations in many abuse cases for one year.
Because of the high amount of damages being sought and "a diversity
of citizenship," the case filed in San Diego was moved to U.S. District
Court in Southern California, the statement said.
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