Decision Not to Dismiss Priest Abuse Cases
By Todd Dvorak
IOWA CITY -- The Roman Catholic Diocese of Davenport is appealing a judge's decision not to dismiss two sexual abuse lawsuits against former priests because the statute of limitations had expired.
Attorneys for the church filed papers with the Iowa Supreme Court on Friday in cases brought by James Wells and an anonymous plaintiff, referred to in court papers as John Doe III.
Last month, Judge C.H. Pelton rejected arguments by diocese attorneys that the lawsuits, two of 15 filed against the church alleging sexual abuse against former priests, were filed too late.
The lawsuits name Revs. James Janssen, Francis Bass and Anthony Geerts, each of whom ministered in parishes across eastern Iowa in the last 50 years.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs argue that the church's efforts to cover up abuse problems and the victims' mental illness and trauma prevented them from taking legal action against the church sooner. Diocese attorneys disagree and say it's an issue for the Supreme Court to decide before trials begin this fall.
"It would be in the interests of justice for all concerned for the Supreme Court to decide these legal issues," the diocese said in a statement Friday.
The diocese has also requested a stay of all 13 scheduled trials until the statute of limitations question is settled.
In his ruling, Pelton said filings by the Wells and Doe III generated questions of fact that are best left for a jury to decide, specifically whether the lawsuits qualified for three possible exemptions in state law.
Those exemptions apply to plaintiffs who couldn't file in a timely manner due to being a minor, having mental illness or in cases when a defendant fraudulently concealed damages.
Diocese attorneys contend all of the cases are hampered by lost evidence and timeworn memories and absence of potential witnesses -- hurdles that make the cases impossible to defend.
Davenport attorney Craig Levien, who is representing all the cases from Scott and Clinton counties, said the latest appeal follows a pattern of legal and procedural delays the diocese has pursued from the start.
"I'm not surprised," said Levien, who has asked Pelton to sanction the diocese for delays in handing over important pretrial documents.
"They have a right to exercise every legal argument that they want to. It's also not surprising that the diocese was unhappy with the judge's ruling last month," he said.
Meanwhile, both sides said efforts to mediate an out-of-court settlement will begin next month.
One of the lawsuits the Supreme Court will consider accuses Janssen of sexually abusing the victim several times from 1953 to 1962 and claims the incidents triggered post traumatic stress disorder and other mental and emotional problems.
The other accuses Bass of sexual abuse while he was a priest at a Fort Madison church and is one of two naming Bass, who retired in 1992.
Both lawsuits also accuse church officials of covering up the abuse allegations and failing to discipline priests despite knowing of their activities.
The first trial in the case is scheduled to begin in November, with others slated to take place nearly once a month through December 2005.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.